November 2009

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My most recent Middlebury Magazine column addresses the issue of student use of space to pursue creative endeavors outside the aegis of the academic program.   It speaks to how central it is to a liberal arts education for students to have the opportunity to pursue such creative endeavors, yet how difficult it sometimes is for some to find the space to do so.

I received this response to the column:

Dear President Liebowitz,

I applaud your recent article in the Middlebury magazine regarding space, the arts at Middlebury, and creativity in general.

I was at Middlebury in the 1970s. I came as a French major, and graduated a music major in 1977. This was in no small part to the many and wonderful opportunities I took part in at Middlebury. I have been a professional musician now for 33 years and my expertise is due in no small part to what Peter Hamlin mentions about space use after hours: I managed to sign up a few hours in the (then) Johnson Music Building during 9-5 hours. but, for the most part, I practiced virtually every single evening from 10 pm in Mead Chapel. The night watchman knew me, and I was able to promise to make sure the lights were off & the door locked after myself when I left. Many (most) nights I stayed til 1 or 2 am, practicing on a splendid church organ and a 9 foot concert grand. When I went on to conservatory for graduate degrees, I realized that had I gone to one of those schools as an undergraduate, I would have been stuck in a tiny, claustrophobic practice room on a mediocre instrument – and likely kicked out at 11 pm. How to compare playing a top-notch instrument in an acoustically grand space to…feeling like a chicken on an egg-laying farm, in my cubicle…I have to say that without this experience that I had at Middlebury, I am quite sure I would not be doing what I do today; nor, would I be as good at it as I am, had I not trained my ears and brain for the realities of real concerts on real spaces. (That’s not to diminish the copious amounts of love & attention I had from my music professors…but still, the unfettered use of the chapel was very important.)

So how wonderful to read your analysis of the effect of unscheduled space on creativity at Middlebury. I must admit, every issue I read of the magazine highlights the “Middlebury is green” theme and the marvelous advances in science, sports and other achievements. And to be sure, you mention many wonderful arts achievements by students and student groups. However, as now the parent of two daughters (17 and 19) and a son (younger), I had the experience of taking both daughters on tours of the college and seeing it fresh from their eyes.

My eldest visited 2 years ago just after spring break. Eagerly I showed her all my old haunts. She is a visual artist, interested also in drama, cognitive science, languages, literature…I thought, what a great fit for Middlebury. But after a tour around campus & wandering around Johnson, she said, “Mom, I can’t apply here.” I asked why not. She said, “I wouldn’t feel creative. I can’t do art here.” You see, we had seen many schools and art departments already. The others (Bennington/Sarah Lawrence/ Skidmore/Bard/ Connecticut/Vassar) had vibrant art departments; students wandered in and out of studios. In most, she was able to wander in, too, and talk to the students about their art. There was a “buzz” that was palpable to me. Middlebury, by contrast, I realized, felt dead & lifeless as we visited. The studios were mostly locked; way too clean & uncluttered; there weren’t any students hanging out, playing raucous music as they worked. Why was that? I began thinking about it & reading the magazine more carefully. In music, it seemed like many professional level & department-organized activities were mentioned. I talked a bit to faculty who mentioned various frustrations. And I noticed especially that the new Arts Center was so far “in left field” that one had to make a real commitment to being there & using it, rather than dropping in with any frequency.

Two years ago I attended a large presentation at Chelsea Piers in New York City. Perhaps you recall: I was the woman who stood up & said “we’ve heard all about a lot of great things, but what about the arts?” – to a certain significant amount of applause from my alumni compatriots. I have to say, your letter is the first sense I have that perhaps you really are committed to regaining that “buzz” of creativity that was palpable, exciting, and ever-present when I was a student at Middlebury. Please, continue to grow the school in this direction!

Sincerely,

XXXXX XXXXX ‘’77

I found this perspective on things very interesting, and I would love to hear from other alumni on this topic: what was it like when you were at Middlebury in terms of your access to space in order to carry out creative pursuits?  Please note when you studied at Middlebury.

51 Main is on my mind, as it will soon be time to decide whether or not the College should continue to run the in-town venue or close it down.

Last year, the Budget Oversight Committee (BOC) recommended that the College close 51 Main. The primary reasons given were that, in light of the ongoing budget cuts, it was wrong for the College to fund an establishment that was not “core” to our academic mission, and it was losing money.  I accepted the BOC’s recommendation, but gave 51 Main until December of this year to show whether it could break even financially for two successive months.  If it could not, it would close.  I should mention that, as of November 1, it looks like 51 Main is very close to meeting its two month break-even requirement, and so feedback from community members on the existence and possible continuance of the establishment will be helpful as we assess our options.

Reactions to the BOC recommendation and what drove it have been the topic of many e-mails sent to me, conversations initiated by students, faculty, and staff during my office hours, and questions raised during lunches I have had with students in Proctor and Ross Dining Halls.  Whenever I discuss 51 Main I explain the history behind its founding, which is critical to understanding whatever success it has to date, and to considering whether its goals are as compelling now as they were three years ago.

The idea to open a place in town came from a student-only task force on social life, which I appointed three years ago to combat the collective student sentiment that campus social life had become sub-par: limited, predictable, “the same old same old,” dominated by social house or smaller suite parties that had at or very near their center of fun beer and alcohol.  The task force report included several recommendations, some of which we have implemented during the past two years.    More to the point, the report stated that, because of the size of our campus, federal and Vermont liquor laws, the growing difficulty of hosting parties spontaneously on campus (related to the state’s liquor laws), and the accelerating demand for more diverse social options as a result of our increasingly diverse student body, providing a place with rich and varied programming would make a huge difference to many students.  In follow-up meetings, students identified the desire and need for a place off campus that brought students and town folks together in a social setting, offered musical and other social events (poetry slams; stand-up comedians; exhibitions of students’ art work; etc.), and did not have the feel of a “College venue,” nor center predominantly on alcohol.

The idea for 51 Main sprang from these task force discussions, and when the space became available a donor made a gift to cover the start-up and operating costs for the venue for multiple years. He also funded several other proposals in the student task force report, because he was well aware of the harsh criticism by students about the limited social life on campus (he had children who had attended Middlebury).  Thus, none of the funding for 51 Main comes from the College’s operating budget, but rather is paid for from a gift that would cover 51 Main’s operating budget for four years, and is restricted to that use.

Since 51 Main opened, many have criticized its existence.  Several in the town community felt it was wrong to add competition to a downtown that was having a hard enough time attracting business.  Some countered this by noting that healthy competition would be good for townspeople and for our students alike; it would provide something new and perhaps nudge existing enterprises to introduce new and exciting programming.  Some merchants agreed and welcomed the new venue; others did not.

Based thus far on anecdotal evidence alone, opinion on campus has been divided.  Staff in general, and a good number of faculty, have been highly critical, arguing that running what they see as a nightclub is problematic, even unethical, in the face of budget cuts and reductions in staff positions through voluntary departures and attrition.  Many share the concern about the College “competing” with businesses in town. 

A number of faculty, however, some of whom have performed at 51 Main several times, view it as a unique venue and describe it as a “beacon of social life” for the town and for college students.  They point to the fact that in no other place in Middlebury do college folk and townspeople socialize as they do at 51 Main.  They also say that the kind of programming at 51 Main is special, diverse, and provides the closest thing to an urban feel one finds in Addison County.

Students seem more positive about 51 Main, but again, my information is only anecdotal and thus my desire in posting these remarks is to collect more feedback.  From what I hear, when the venue first opened, it was mostly the underrepresented groups at Middlebury—students of color, inner city, and international students—who visited 51 Main, and found it very much to their liking, just as the student task force on social life had envisioned.  But towards the end of last year, and throughout this semester, a greater portion of the student body began to frequent 51 Main.  Indeed, I have heard this fall from many parents across a broad spectrum of backgrounds that 51 Main has caught on.  Their sons and daughters claim it is an important social option for students who want more than a social house or suite party—for those who want to see, be with, and engage people from town who are not from the College, and listen to interesting bands, including student bands whose members include their college friends.  Many townspeople, too, have commented very positively on 51 Main, noting how it adds to social options in town, and how enjoyable it is to be among College students in a relaxed and new kind of social setting.

The negative voices I have heard, though I don’t know their number, are the loudest.  They convey their thoughts and say they speak for “many” in their opposition to this venture, again on ethical grounds.  Interestingly, I know many of those who criticize 51 Main are also the strongest supporters for greater diversity on our campus, and one has to wonder whether they see any connection between the presence of a 51 Main on the one hand, and the College’s need not only to matriculate diverse students, but also to provide the kind of support, including a social life, that helps a more diverse student body to thrive when they come to a place like Middlebury.

I am interested in your views of 51 Main and whether it should continue if it can break even financially.   Please identify whether you are a student, staff member, faculty member, community member, parent, or other.  Thank you.

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