Space and Creativity

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!



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.


Molley Kaiyoorawongs

Molley Kaiyoorawongs’s avatar

Just graduated last year and one of my most enduring memories of Middlebury is of the frustration from having no practice room to practice in during the day and evening and being locked out the CFA at night– way before it was supposed to be locked. It closes at 1 o’clock am but public safety regularly closes it by 11:30, 12 on weeknights and even earlier on weekends (they say it’s so they can be available for mayhem later in the night). On one memorable occasion, I trekked over at 9pm on a Saturday and, you guessed it, it was locked. I called to have it unlocked sometimes if I really wanted to go in, but I’d wait outside in the cold for a while and then get questioned about why I wanted to go in. It’s a significant deterrent. A couple of times I forgot my cell phone so then I really was locked out and the trek down from Ross or Gifford was for naught. I was excited to return from abroad and see that extra practice rooms had been added in Wright and the music studio. The thing is that Wright is always locked too.
And no matter where you practice, you never know if you’re going to have a productive practicing session depending on who’s playing in the practice room next to you since none of the practice rooms anywhere are sound proof.

Mead Chapel’s still great though, just like it was for the alum quoted in this post. Too bad there’s only 1 of them.

I’m not an alum yet, but I wandered to this post from the one about 51 Main and thought I’d make a comment.

I can’t say much about music or drawing, but I can and must say I’ve been very impressed with Middlebury’s theater facilities, especially the Hepburn Zoo. The Zoo is invaluable. It’s versatile, student-controlled, and it always contains a “buzz.” Its main drawback is that the theater is too small to fit the enthusiastic audiences that crowd in for almost every show. I wish Wright and Seeler were as frequented as the Zoo.

I also wish Hillcrest were open more. It’s Middlebury’s environmental showboat, a really excellent place for thinking, and yet it seems to be closed after 5:00 most days.

Art and music seem flatter than theater at Middlebury, in part because very little of either is seen in the daily lives of most students. McCullough’s Center Gallery was a great step forward in this sense, as were the numerous public art projects that sprang up during the spring semester (i.e. Bikes, Recycled). I would ask Alex Benepe, the most talented guy on campus for getting strange art into people’s lives, for some advice.

The Old Stone Mill has terrific facilities for creative development. Oddly, it’s one of the more poorly advertised and lesser known places since it’s location is off-campus. If the college could replicate and simulate the environment of OSM elsewhere on campus (cheaply of course), I guarantee that these innovative cells would soon metastasize and make Midd a more sought after liberal arts school.

Ronald Liebowitz

Ronald Liebowitz’s avatar

Jeremy: can you think of facilities on campus and suggest how we might do this—Freeman International? old houses that abutt the campus that now serve as apartments but might be converted? We did this on Adirondack View with the “annex” and it has been successful, but where else might you suggest?

Would spaces in McCullough work in your view? Thanks for the input.

Hi Ron,

I can definitely think of a variety of options that would work for several creative intentions. If you would like to sit down for a few minutes to discuss this, I would be happy to share some of my ideas and those that I’ve marshaled from my friends. My email is jbmartin@midd if you’re interested.

Best wishes,

Thanks for your very perceptive column in the magazine–you’ve honed in on an important weakness in our campus spaces. Some suggested reading: “How Buildings Learn” by Stewart Brand (it can be found at the main library).

One particular section of Brand’s book talks about the importance of “low road” buildings in fostering creativity and enterprise. He argues that in older, cheaper, and/or humble buildings the perceived low value of the space frees its occupants to get messy, make improvements, even move walls etc. without fear of ruining anything. It seems to hold true at Middlebury–some of our most marginal spaces are also the most vital (e.g. Old Stone Mill, Hepburn Zoo, Gamut Room, Coltrane).

I think you’ve reached a similar insight with your column and applaud your search for more informal spaces around campus to be put to creative use. Keep up the good work!

Ronald Liebowitz

Ronald Liebowitz’s avatar

Thank you, Chris. I will look for the Brand book today.


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