CU Arts is breaking our hearts

Art aficionado Maren Killackey looks at CU Arts’ inefficiencies, its history and its future.

At the risk of further belaboring an already belabored point, the decline of the Columbia University Arts Initiative is an unfortunate tale and has had unfortunate effects on all. From the Frick and Guggenheim dropping out of Passport to Columbia, to the program that brought Vaclav Havel to campus essentially disintegrating, CU Arts has gone through a rough past few years and is now in a rather pitiable state. But how’d it get there? A few years ago it was fine, right? Well, there are a number of contributors, but two main points stick out: 1) a few years ago the endowment hadn’t crashed yet and there weren’t as many budgetary problems and 2) management of the Arts Initiative then was a bit more comprehensive.

First a bit of history: CU Arts was created in 2004 as one of incoming President Bollinger’s big initiatives. Until 2009, the program was housed in the President’s Office, but was moved to the Graduate School of the Arts ostensibly because neither PrezBo nor his Provost at the time had been able to dedicate sufficient attention to it. From this, one particular question arises: why SoA? The Spec article on the move isn’t very telling, save for PrezBo’s quote describing SoA Dean Carol Becker – whom he calls simply “Carol” – as “great and special.” While being “great” in PrezBo’s eyes (in addition to being his close personal friend, as rumor has it, Becker is) will likely get you pretty far, it’s still curious why a program that fundamentally benefits undergraduates is placed in the care of a graduate school.  One theory advocated is that the Arts Initiative was actually given to SoA as a way to make the school more attractive to potential donors, especially since it was behind on fundraising. After all, CU Arts has been a huge selling point for Columbia in general. However, since the integration, CUAI’s budget has been cut by 40%, and despite administrators’ ardent promises, several programs (CU Global, artists residencies) have ended, others (Gatsby grants, TIC discounts) are in decay. The dramatic budget cuts have been a significant source of criticism of Dean Becker’s oversight. Though she is in the difficult position of determining whether to fund her graduate programs or CUArts, many would say that she shouldn’t have been put in such a position in the first place.

Regarding further changes in CUArts’ management, not long after the Initiative’s merger with SoA, its director, Gregory Mosher, left. Melissa Smey, who was and still is the head of Miller Theater (which had also recently integrated with SoA and was also facing budget constrictions), was appointed to take his place.This action followed the theme of events up to this point in that it was done without student input. In light of this upsetting trend, the Advocates of the Arts Initiative was formed in April 2010. The Advocates succeeded in garnering significant undergraduate support for its mission and creating dialogue with both Smey and Dean Becker, but not so much in their goal of institutionalizing a student advisory board for CUArts. In the recent past, the Initiative had 20 student staffers and 9 full time staff, so student involvement was technically part of the its structure. Currently, however, there are maybe one or two student staff members and only three full time staffers plus a vacancy. Add to that the fact that Smey is really only a part time director since she’s still running Miller Theater and, as it appears, doesn’t have the time to adequately run both, the time she devotes to each appearing less 50% CUArts, 50% Miller Theater and more 10% CUArts, 90% Miller.

At its height, CUArts succeeded in letting students take utmost advantage of what New York is known for, what makes that “Columbia University in the City of New York” so alluring. It succeeded in exposing every student whether an Engineering, Economics or English major to the arts. Now what we have is a program that is underfunded, understaffed, and isn’t structurally informed by the community it serves most. The base is still there, but is quickly eroding. Fortunately, student leaders and other members of the student body have taken notice and are acting to address these issues. CCSC VP Policy Will Hughes especially has been working on a resolution that, among other things, would create the Arts’ advisory board that should have been created long ago. In the words of Barry Weinberg, CC’12 and outspoken, well-informed individual on a wide variety of campus issues, “As students within a residential Ivy League institution, we are rightly concerned with oversight of the institutions that impact our daily lives,” and especially those as dear as the CUArts Initiative.

But you didn’t have to stoop so low via WikiCU