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Arts in Focus - Realizing a vision for the arts

August 25, 2006 at 1:36 pm

Six years ago a faculty and staff committee convened to imagine a facility that would bring Carleton’s arts curriculum and programming into the 21st century.

In an ideal world, the committee decided, a single building would house all of the arts departments. It would be equipped with better, technologically rich versions of the College’s current facilities: a theater with fly space, a soundproof concert hall, roomy art and dance studios, a vastly expanded art museum, a cinema. But the facility needed to do much more than simply gather the departments under one roof: Connecting traditional spaces would be dynamic, flexible common spaces, casual gathering spots where students and faculty members would happen upon one another unexpectedly, exhibit and perform spontaneously, and plan collaborative, interdisciplinary projects.

Reality hit hard when the committee asked an architect to draw up some sketches.

“The architect gave us a plan for a building that looked like the Pentagon,” recalls John Schott, the James Woodward Strong Professor of the Liberal Arts. The committee immediately realized that, short of Bell Field, there was no space on campus large enough to house such a building. “We had talked about this for a year, and within half an hour all of our good intentions were down the drain. The idea was right, but the building was out of scale for our campus and we all recognized that instantly,” Schott says.

Enthusiasm returned in full force when Carleton purchased the former Northfield Middle School, a large vacant building on Union Street just south of Nutting House, in 2005.

Touring the facility, arts faculty members agreed that, with careful planning and an extensive makeover, the building could become a first-rate interdisciplinary arts center for Carleton. Most importantly, the building has enough room for the types of informal common spaces that, according to faculty members, trigger collaboration across disciplines.

“Interdisciplinarity is a huge part of the way artists work, consciously as well as unconsciously,” explains Ruth Weiner, the Class of 1944 Professor of Theater and the Liberal Arts. “Simple proximity between departments will allow students to see the work of others outside of their department and become excited by it. If I were a theater student, I might see an art student’s sculpture and think, ‘That’s someone who should design the set to the show I’m going to direct next term.’ ”

Mary Easter, the Rae Schupack Nathan Professor of Dance and the Performing Arts, agrees. “It’s the crossover that becomes so much easier when you are together,” she says. With a new, centralized arts program, logistics will become incentives, rather than obstacles, to creating and showing new art, Easter predicts.

Accomplishing Carleton’s bold new vision for the arts involves extensive planning to create a center appropriate for a teaching institution. It also requires significant resources: The likely cost of physically converting the middle school into an arts center, and related programming, is $50 million. The project is a leading fund-raising priority for the College. In the end, Carleton will be equipped to take the arts in directions that have yet to be conceived.

“We’re going to have a space that excites our imaginations,” Weiner says.

Web extra: View the arts planning committee’s fall 2005 report, Building the Consciously Creative Campus.

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