Occasionally I embark on a project that sends me straight down the rabbit hole. That turned out to be the case with my story just-published in the New York Times, “On Elite Campuses, An Arts Race.” For a “trend” piece, this one is fairly short (not all readers agree…) , but I ended up interviewing people in seven states ranging across most of the country. And though most of the projects I had in mind initially made it into the story, I found out just how big the trend is—I didn’t understand the size of Stanford’s investment at first, for example—as projects began popping up on Internet searches and landing in my inbox. The winnowing was painful.
I’ve added images of two of the projects mentioned that did not make it into the Times slideshow: the Logan Center of the Arts in Chicago, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien. You can see the tower that signals the presence of art to to the campus, as well as the low wing that contains publicly accessible facilities and a door that opens to South Chicago. A team at Ennead led by Duncan Hazard and Richard Olcott somehow made three very different buildings at Yale play well together to better accommodate the extraordinary collections of the The Yale Art Gallery.
The reasons that art investments on campus have become so important also turned out to be more diverse than I expected. The threatened sale of the major modern-art collection at Brandeis to replenish a depleted endowment had a seismic effect on the small but insular world of university museums. They couldn’t live in their dimly lit ivory towers anymore but had to make their riches available broadly — to the public and throughout the university. As the Harvard Art Museum director Thomas Lentz argued to the university’s leadership, “If we have such great collections and can’t make them more accessible, then we shouldn’t keep them.” For Harvard, that argument won’t go away even after opening much larger and more welcoming displays Nov. 16. The work on show is staggeringly good, but it barely skims the surface of the university’s holdings. (You get a sense of just how rich the riches are by looking at Harvard’s superbly reconceived website, here.
It turns out that lots of students still seek arts degrees, even with dicey job prospects, but the data was conflicting enough to preclude any definitive conclusion for the story. (Some liberal-arts degree areas—philosophy, classics—seem to be trending rapidly downward.) But, as in so many other areas on campus, collaborative interdisciplinary study is swinging upward with arts deeply involved. Yale and Harvard, with their huge resources, reach out to engineering, life sciences, and other areas because looking, touching and trying to understand the history, the patterns, and the structure of real objects turns out to be mind-blowing. Not everything can be understood on a screen. But this trend isn’t confined to the wealthiest or the schools with the biggest collections. It seems to be happening everywhere. Universities are also recognizing that top students, even if they are pursuing business, law, or medicine, want to “do” art. They’ve got an acting gene, they want to master an instrument — or just want to make something that involves thinking with the other side of their brain. It’s all rather heartening.