The arts have a rich history at Middlebury, playing a fundamental role in the life and culture of the College. We talked to President Liebowitz about the importance of the arts, its evolution inside and outside the curriculum, and its future in higher education.
Let’s start broadly: What is the role of the arts in a liberal arts education?
It’s an integral part of a liberal arts education. To be liberally educated you have to have an understanding, an appreciation, and a critique, in some way, of the arts. The arts are an embodiment of the human endeavor, a product of creativity, and an expression of one’s relationship to oneself, to other people, and to the environment. The arts are central to our educational mission.
Students come to a liberal arts college like Middlebury for both the breadth and the depth of what we offer. If you’re a chemistry major or a political science major, you’ll take 18 to 20 courses outside your chosen field of study. You’ll be exposed to various ways of thinking, creating, and appreciating. This broad education includes the arts.
The College recently received a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation to support a multiyear project to bring emerging artists in dance to collaborate with Middlebury faculty and students in other disciplines. This seems to be a groundbreaking effort.
I’m very excited about this. “Movement Matters” will address the question of how human bodies can shape—both literally and metaphorically—our political and physical worlds. Christal Brown, an assistant professor and chair of the dance program, will direct the project, and she’s done an amazing job. She’s an incredible ambassador and spokesperson for the performing arts becoming more central in the lives of our students, faculty, and staff.
To be honest, I think students are already there. With this project, I think faculty and staff will be the ones being pushed to think beyond the traditional boundaries of a liberal arts education. As faculty advisers, we always encourage students to broaden their experiences by taking courses outside their areas of endeavor. But this project goes further. It will compel faculty to think about how art meshes with their disciplinary teaching. It’s a wonderful reinforcement of the liberal arts ideal.
During your time at Middlebury, have you seen an increase in student interest in the arts?
I believe there’s greater student demand to engage in artistic endeavors. There’s always been great interest in the arts curriculum here, and this student body has consistently been a bit more arts oriented than other student bodies I’ve encountered in the academy.
I’m seeing an expansion of interest outside the curriculum. We have amazingly creative students working on, say, playwriting in the Old Stone Mill or pottery on Adirondack View. Both spaces fall under the auspices of PCI, our Programs on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts, and they’re serving as creative laboratories for students who want to experiment outside the classroom.
Now, there’s healthy debate among some faculty as to whether we should be facilitating this experimentation outside of the curriculum. Some arts faculty feel students should understand the fundamentals of what they’re doing, rather than just attempting it. I understand their thinking, but another perspective is unquestionably compelling. Peter Hamlin, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music, says that among his composition students, those who have composed music experimentally in the Old Stone Mill have arrived in his class having already learned, to an appreciable, if not complete, extent what works and what doesn’t work, and he senses a constructive confidence as they discuss their creative endeavors.
Like in other disciplines, in the arts, there’s theory and there’s practice. How valuable are the opportunities students have to engage in these “real world” programs like the Potomac Theatre Project in New York or the Town Hall Theater in town?
Extremely valuable. Let’s look at the Potomac Theatre Project (PTP). Since Cheryl Faraone and Richard Romagnoli founded PTP (with Jim Petosa) in the mid 1980s, scores of Middlebury students have been involved with this professional acting company, working alongside equity actors, learning the art of acting as well as set and costume design, in ways really hard to replicate in the traditional classroom or theater program. And since PTP moved to New York and off-Broadway seven years ago, the experience has gotten that much richer. Our undergraduate theatre program already is amazing; access to PTP makes it, in my view, remarkable.
As well, our partnership with the Town Hall Theatre not only supports a local cultural institution but also expands our students’ opportunities. (For more on this partnership, see p. 32) During the school year, students act, co-direct, and stage productions in collaboration with community actors and performers. Each January, THT also houses our winter-term musical, which typically plays to full houses every night. And in the summer, our Language Schools students perform in the space, as the arts constitute an important part of the learning process and Language School mission. We have flexibility in our accessible venues, and we also place unique artistic offerings right in town.
There are two other programs emblematic of both the thirst for, and success of, the arts for our students. During fall break, senior majors in architecture studies will visit cities—recent locations have been Montreal and Boston—where they will view and study important architectural works. They’ll meet with the architects of those projects, when possible, and also visit architectural firms, both large and small, to see first-hand what it means to work in this field; this kind of exposure to the profession is difficult to obtain in the Champlain Valley.
Another extraordinary opportunity is the Museum Assistance Program (MAP). Students learn how to be docents of a collection—they learn how to show, talk about, and teach art. But they are also learning to speak intelligently to audiences and to carry themselves in professional ways. They’re acquiring interpersonal and intellectual skills that will help them in any profession.
There’s also a fund that allows winter term students to…
They purchase art for the museum! Yes, that’s another wonderful opportunity. Through the generous gift of an alumna, the students research art, they learn about art acquisition, and they learn about the marketplace. It’s an incredible experience, and they get to work alongside the donor to the fund, an art gallery owner, who comes to campus and provides advice and expertise. Another fund, given by parents of a recent graduate, provides residences for visiting musicians. When these professional musicians come to campus, they spend a little time on campus and work with students, giving the students a feel for performing or composing at a professional level. These experiences are invaluable.
The College recently received a generous gift of a Steinway concert grand piano, and part of the donor agreement was that this piano be made available to the entire community.
It’s a beautiful gift to the College, and this aspect of the gift especially so. We have far more musical talent than what we regularly hear about. When the piano arrived, this became abundantly clear. You wrote about it in the magazine—we had sign-up opportunities for people to come into the concert hall and play. The list filled up immediately. And interest has continued, as it has with people getting to play other pianos. If anything, we’re many pianos short in terms of demand on campus! A gift of 10, 20, and maybe 30 pianos for practice and leisurely playing would probably still not meet our campus demand; one can hope!
Middlebury has celebrated music for a long time. We have a concert series in its 95th year, and recently I looked at the entire lineup of performers who have come to campus during this period. Both the evolution and the continuity in this music series is remarkable. Middlebury cares about music, and this Steinway is symbolic of that commitment to the art form. It has all the more meaning by coming to us as a gift from parents whose son excelled here in music and the performing arts.
There are well-documented economic pressures on higher education. Where do the arts fall in these discussions of cost and relevance?
It’s a real question, specifically one of cost. To circle back to the beginning of our conversation: the arts are essential to a liberal arts education. Appreciating the arts doesn’t end when one graduates. Rather, if we are successful in educating our students in the liberal arts tradition, that appreciation becomes a lifelong endeavor. Learning about artistic forms allows one to appreciate life. We’d be delinquent if we didn’t recognize the arts’ place in our students’ educations.
Does this mean always having the most expensive things? No. It means always making artistic endeavors a part of students’ educational experiences. Students must be exposed to, and inspired by, the arts—by what they see and hear and learn. Middlebury has long been committed to this philosophy, and I believe we’ll not only retain this commitment but strengthen it in the years ahead.