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The Arts Amid Academe
Yale is unique among Ivy League institutions in providing such comprehensive professional training in the arts. At the AYA’s most recent Assembly, deans and delegates probed the powerful role of the muse in the classroom, and beyond it.

The money’s lousy, the benefits largely nonexistent. The hours are long. And there’s no security.

Still, they come. Would-be artists, architects, musicians, and practitioners of all manner of stagecraft continue to flock to Yale’s professional schools for some of the best training available anywhere. And on the undergraduate level, the story is much the same. (See “The Play’s Still the Thing.”)

At the Association of Yale Alumni’s Assembly XLV, held October 20–22, some 225 alumni delegates from around the country heard deans, administrators, museum directors, and students discuss both the pleasures and perils of a life in the arts. A veritable feast for the intellect and the senses, the three-day event included lectures, performances, and tours behind the scenes to the studios, recital spaces, and classrooms where creativity is the basic prerequisite.

“Yale has a long history of being at the forefront of promoting the arts,” said Elizabeth M. Mahon ’84MArc, chair of Assembly XLV, as she convened the meeting’s first event, a freewheeling panel discussion with Alison Richard, provost of the University; Fred Koetter, dean of the School of Architecture; Music School dean Ezra Laderman; David Pease, dean of the School of Art; and Drama School dean Stan Wojewodski Jr.

In her introductory remarks, Provost Richard sounded themes that would be explored in detail throughout the Assembly. “These professional schools are an integral part of the University and the wider community,” she said. “And while they are already leaders, they are continuously reinventing themselves.”

One of the most noticeable ways in which the schools are changing is their growing emphasis on contact with the world beyond their own precincts. Since members of the art, architecture, music, and drama faculties often teach undergraduates as well as graduate students, the presence of the schools already enhances the richness of the intellectual environment at the College. But as part of the panel presentation, the deans also described some of the efforts their schools have made in recent years to link Yale with its host city. Primary among them are the scores of plays, art exhibits, and concerts, many of which are free and open to the public. Beyond them are areas in which Yale interacts with New Haven in less predictable ways. “The edges that separate the arts are dissolving,” Koetter said, adding that walls between the arts and other disciplines are coming down as well. He cited as an example his own school’s First-Year Building Project (Yale Alumni Magazine, Summer 1994), which engages students in the design and construction of low-cost housing in New Haven. Meanwhile, graphic designers at the School of Art are developing an interactive system at Yale–New Haven Hospital to enable patients to communicate more easily with their doctors about health problems, while a group of art students known as “Class Action” have put together a series of billboards to change perceptions in New Haven about AIDS. “Outreach is a fundamental part of the curriculum,” noted Wojewodski, whose school has recently expanded its own outreach efforts with a project to teach playwriting skills to local children.

Such efforts come at a price, and hovering over the entire gathering was the issue of how little money is available, what Wojewodski described as the “troublesome news” about the arts and those who pursue them professionally. “Theater has the ability to save the world,” he said. “But I’m bothered by what happens to our students financially.” He explained that financial aid for the arts at Yale remains severely limited, with the result that the average Yale Drama graduate, for example, leaves the cozy confines of the school “distinguished and impoverished” with a debt of $29,000, only to face a career that pays an average of $14,000 a year. At the other schools, the numbers may be somewhat different, but the story is similar. Music, no less than drama, says Laderman, “is not an easy field to go into these days.”

Still, the students come, or want to, with dozens of hopefuls applying for each slot. Last year, the Drama School received more than 1,100 applications and accepted only 83 students; at the Art School, ’90 applicants vied for 54 openings.

During the Assembly’s Friday morning session, delegates had a chance to see what the successful applicants get for their tuition, sitting in on master music classes, theatrical rehearsals, and design studios, and talking to the students as they went about their creative work. In one of the art studios, delegates watched Anne McKeown, a second-year art student, carving images in four-foot-by-six-foot sheets of plywood in preparation for making prints. “I thought this project would take a couple of months, but it just keeps expanding,” said McKeown, who hopes to teach after graduation in the spring. “This has been an amazing experience.”

After leaving the works-in-progress, the delegates got an in-depth appreciation of what the finished products can be at their best. On Friday afternoon, Alexander Purves, a professor of architectural design, delivered a lecture, “Examining Architecture: A Close Look at Louis I. Kahn’s Yale Museums,” during which he “decoded” the Yale Art Gallery, Kahn’s first major commission, completed in 1953, and the British Art Center, the architect’s last major design, which was finished in 1977. “The buildings on Chapel Street bracket an extraordinary career,” said Purves, who took delegates on a guided slide tour of the museums and highlighted Kahn’s innovative use of both interior and exterior space.

Following the talk, undergraduate artistic prowess had its moment in the spotlight in the form of performances by the Yale Glee Club; the Viola Question, a comedy troupe; the Whiffenpoofs; and Whim 'n Rhythm, the Whiffs' female counterpart. Alumni of the groups joined them onstage, and for Allison Day '90, now a graduate student in medieval art history at the University of North Carolina, the experience proved “more than a little poignant. All the faces are new, but they’re already my friends,” said Day. “It’s a bond with past, present, and future.”

Ensuring the continuity of that bond was the subject of an address by Duncan Robinson, director of the Yale Center for British Art, following the traditional Friday night banquet in Commons. “Can we really afford to neglect the arts when they have so much potential, not just to challenge us, but to change our society for the better?” asked Robinson. He answered his own question: “Unequivocally, no!” But he was quick to caution those who might embark on careers in the arts with less than full dedication. “It takes courage to be an artist if you take your vocation seriously,” he said. “The arts are not designed for comfort.”  the end


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