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Fostering innovation in 21st-century economy

By Theresa Reid

More than 200 provosts, deans, directors, and other faculty and administrative leaders from top-tier research universities across the U.S. will convene in Ann Arbor this May 4 – 6 to attend a Michigan Meeting on “The Role of Art-Making and the Arts in the Research University.” This first-of-its-kind meeting will focus and advance an emerging national conversation about better incorporating art-making and the arts into the research university as an essential, often neglected, means of understanding, analyzing, envisioning, and realizing.

The meeting is organized by ArtsEngine, an integrative initiative led by the deans of U-M’s five North Campus units:  the College of Engineering; the School of Art & Design; the School of Music, Theatre & Dance; Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning; and University Libraries. The intent of the initiative is to maximize the creative production of U-M students, faculty, and staff by driving transdisciplinary collaborations among their units.

Each academic year, U-M’s Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies funds up to two interdisciplinary meetings of national and international scope on topics of broad interest to the public and academic community. The Michigan Meeting on the arts in the research university is the first of the selected meetings for 2011. The second meeting, “Global Sustainability:  China and U.S. Partnerships,” to be held May 19-20, will feature several breakout and keynote sessions on the role of arts and culture in sustainability, with the facilitation of ArtsEngine.

Below is an interview with Theresa Reid (photo right), executive director of ArtsEngine.

Montage: Why is this symposium important right now?

Theresa Reid: Lots of top-tier universities are re-examining their commitment to the arts, and the primary reason is the worldwide demand for creativity.   In a global economy, a key differentiator for businesses and for national economies is creativity and the innovations that result from it.  That’s one major reason that places like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and other elite universities are lately turning increasingly to the arts.

Montage: The title of your conference refers to “art-making” and “the arts.”  What’s the difference?

Reid: By “art-making” we mean original creative production in all forms of art, as well as re-creation through performance.  “The arts” are the product of art-making.  Engaging with the arts – in museums, exhibitions, screenings, live performances – is a vital part of our culture and of the university experience.   But art-making is different:  it’s the extremely difficult, worrying, rigorous, error-filled process of discovery through original creative expression.

Montage: Why is that process important to the research university?

Reid: It’s important that universities serve the whole student.  We talk a great deal about diversity, because we know that diversity of all kinds enriches learning and life in many ways.  Integrating art-making into the university introduces a certain kind of rigorous cognitive diversity – it helps students learn to use their whole brains.  This is deeply rewarding and exciting on a personal level, of course.  But also, the world’s incredibly complicated problems need graduates who can use their full creative and cognitive endowment.

Montage: Are the arts the route to creativity?

Reid: The arts are not the route to creativity; they are a route – an important route.   There are highly creative students, faculty, and staff all over the university, in every discipline, not just in the arts.

Art-making – artists – bring to the table not the key but different and valuable perspectives, skills, processes, and expertise that complement those of different disciplines.  It’s very important to note that artists and their production are also tremendously enriched by operating within the research university.  The opportunities for productive, potentially groundbreaking collaborations among artists and creative colleagues in other disciplines are tremendous.

Montage: So, why the need for this symposium?

Reid: Art-making has not thrived in research universities, generally.  U-M is highly unusual in having mature, very highly regarded professional programs in Art & Design, Music, Theatre & Dance, and Architecture, as well as in creative writing and filmmaking. In addition to these professional programs, we have UMMA, UMS, and hundreds of voluntary student art groups.   In most research universities art-making is a very faint echo.

Montage: Why is art-making not thriving at most research universities?

Reid: One reason is revenue.  Art-making can be expensive, and doesn’t bring in revenue like, for instance, scientific or engineering research does.   It’s a sad fact, but somebody has to pay the bills.  Also, the value of the products of art-making might not be immediately evident, as it often is in science, math, and engineering: the value of the product of “art-making” is harder to quantify, especially in the short-term.

Montage: So why do art-making and the arts belong in the research university?

Reid: Because art-making is integral to the project of being human.  Human beings evolved making art, and every human culture produces art.  This essential part of who we are as a species cannot be left behind in the greatest engines of culture in the world:  U.S. research universities.  All research universities do support the humanities – that is, the study of the arts.  But the humanities, important as they are, are not enough.  The making and the doing of original creative work is categorically different:  it’s the hands-on creative work that provides the really deep cognitive diversity and opportunities for groundbreaking collaborations.

Montage: I’m convinced.  What are some models for how such integration might be accomplished?

Reid: The broadest cut is curricular and co-curricular.  Curricular solutions include making it easier for general studies students to take serious art-making classes, and building interdisciplinary courses that integrate art-making and other subjects like math, physics, and engineering.  Co-curricular solutions include providing dedicated space for student groups to create, exhibit, and perform, providing seed funding for student art projects, providing individual and group practice space and pianos, and in other ways systematically encouraging, facilitating, and rewarding students’ original creative work.

Montage: What’s AE doing along these lines?

Reid: ArtsEngine has a number of programs designed to integrate students and faculty in the arts, architecture, and engineering on U-M’s North Campus and beyond.  We have a living-learning community, Living Arts, that brings together students from all of the North Campus units and LSA with programming to stimulate interdisciplinary creative work.  We have a course, Creative Process, that serves first-year through graduate students.  It’s taught by faculty from all of the North Campus units simultaneously and supports original creative work in a wide range of modalities.  We support a student group, idea, that will soon be sponsoring an interdisciplinary creative competition called “42 Hours of Re_Creativity.”  We introduce faculty from the different units to one another and provide funding for joint projects.   Sometimes these faculty mashups result in innovative new courses, like the 400-level “Smart Surfaces,” taught by faculty from Art & Design, Engineering, and Architecture.  We’re having fun up here!  I also want to note that the robust and inventive work of colleagues such as UMMA, UMS, and Arts at Michigan tremendously enrich U-M students’ experiences in the arts.   We have a great arts community here at U-M – it’s vastly underappreciated.  I’m excited that the Michigan Meeting will be bringing it out of the shadows, and might generate both more recognition and more support for it.

Montage: What are your greatest hopes for the Michigan Meeting?

Reid: Frankly, to drive national momentum to develop better ways to integrate art-making and the arts into the research university.  Working groups during the meeting will produce reports and recommendations on such matters as a research agenda, how best to build a case for such integration, funding, curricular, and advocacy models, and the development of a national network to maintain the drive.  I’m a Chicagoan, and so always take to heart Daniel Burnham’s dictum:  Make no little plans.

“The Role of Art-Making and the Arts in a Research University” will be held May 4-6.