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!
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.