Universities Embrace the Arts: What Do Artists Get?

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YaleNews image by Michael Marsland, via Cornify.

The essence of counterpoint is simultaneity of voices, preternatural control of resources, apparently endless inventiveness.    — Edward Said

Last Monday, Yale University announced a $150 million gift from billionaire Stephen Schwarzman to create a new performing arts center named in his honor. Yale President Peter Salvoney, announcing the plan, said:

The Schwarzman Center will make for a more connected and creative Yale, one that is poised for greater global leadership in the years ahead.

Last month, Harvard University announced a new concentration in theater, dance and media. Citing a groundswell of interest in the arts, Harvard President Drew Faust — $5 million from her discretionary fund in hand — proclaimed:

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The theater, dance, and media concentration is a true reflection of our shared commitment to strengthening the study and practice of the arts at Harvard.

Last year, Brown University announced a strategic initiative in the arts that will culminate in a new performance venue. Its president, Christina Paxson, underlined the increasing strategic importance of the arts in a research context:

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I want Brown to be known as an incredibly attractive place for students and for scholars who are artists, who understand the value of a liberal education and want to integrate those two things.

Schwarzman-Salovey Cornify
YaleNews image by Michael Marsland, via Cornify.

Why is the Ivy League suddenly paying such lavish attention to the arts? Five years after the popularization of STEM to STEAM (the movement to add Arts to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math research programs) there is ample data that suggest access to artistic training makes students more inquisitive and collaborative, buoys test scores and increases feelings of goodwill toward one’s community and alma mater. For educational institutions in the business of cultivating exceptional students, the arts have become an obvious net plus for multiple bottom lines.

Yet university investment in the arts is not without its complications. STEM to STEAM evangelists rightfully extol the benefits of proximity to the arts, but it seems rare that the arts benefit equally from such a union. Much STEM to STEAM languaging and programming reduce the arts to mere supplement, an add-on, a means to fortify one’s STEM standing. (Dancing parabola? Pantomiming volcanos?) Given the tenuousness and volatility of the cultural sector, I find it curious that the arts fortify STEM, but not so much vice versa.

As an advocate for the inclusion of the arts in the academy, I don’t particularly mind elite universities’ use of culture as a competitive bludgeon. But I am concerned by how rarely artists profit from the value they produce. Gentrification is the best known example of this contradiction, where the presence of artists attracts external investment into a local community, which raises property values and then dislocates the artists who produced that value to begin with. That the average attendee of an artistic event spends, according to Americans for the Arts, nearly $30 in the surrounding community — none of which goes to the artist — is par for this economic course.

In the academic context, meanwhile, investments in the arts result in higher test scores, novel intellectual property, local economic development and happier students — all of compounding value for a university. But it is the university’s organizational structure that permits it to capture more economic value from artists than the artists capture themselves. And while this asymmetry isn’t a malicious scheme, it perpetuates the undersized role of artists in our world. Disruption theory describes how entrants to extant markets locate value in ways incumbents cannot. To understand universities as capturing greater value from the arts than the artists themselves is to be wary of the argument that a rising tide lifts all boats.

What might an equitable relationship look like between the arts and elite research universities? How might a university contribute as much vigor to the arts as the arts contribute to the university? Perhaps one path toward equity is simple reciprocity, where for every STEAM-oriented initiative (say, the choreographics of the Apple Watch), there would be an equally funded and staffed cultural initiative in which humanities scholars, social scientists and other researchers address issues facing the sector (say, the ethics of big-data cultural marketing). These groups would share their findings with the field(s) in an accessible and ongoing fashion, through online content and ongoing public arts programming inspired by the topics explored (say, a performance festival celebrating the musical and critical legacy of literary scholar Edward Said).

I believe there is unique programmatic terrain where academic research tracks and the arts are equal partners. An initiative that took arts equity as a foundational kernel would need housing within a unique institutional ecology — an accelerated, bureaucratically porous research environment — but I think the results could be singularly galvanizing for all and unique to university arts programming. Ultimately, I am excited by the possibility of such an initiative, principally because I believe it desperately needs to exist. So much of the cultural sector remains beholden to inequitable legacy codes, to traditional modes of artist engagement that are recursively reiterating the failing arts architectures of the 20th century. Nearly anyone can produce cultural content. This is the beauty and the curse of our present, radically democratized moment. But for elite research universities with singular access to capital, the intention to create arts programming and the very real capacity to capture and multiply value from it, perhaps the right thing to do is not merely invest in culture, but equitably partner with artists.