Melissa Smey, director of the Arts Initiative and Miller Theatre, just sent an email to everyone on the CUArts listserv announcing forthcoming changes to the Arts Initiative. The changes, made in response to the “Save the Arts Initiative” campaign, come just 2 days after Prezbo told a fireside chat audience that he was looking into ways to strengthen the Initiative.

Among the changes will be the addition of an Associate Director* for the Initiative, the formation of an advisory group (with student input) that will recommend further changes and a (much-needed) redesign of the CUArts website, and a vague promise to “expand access to Miller Theatre for recognized student groups,” which may mean that the Columbia Ballet Collaborative will not be forced to stop performing Miller.

Will the leaders of the “Save the Arts Initiative” initiative be satisifed with these changes? It’s tough to say. They called for more significant changes—the hiring of a new director (not just an assistant diretor), increased funding for the Initiative, moving the Initiative out of the School of the Arts and back into Prezbo’s office—but the changes announced by Smey do seem a step in the right direction.

We’ve reached out to Will Hughes, CCSC’s VP of Policy and the leader of “Save the Arts Initiative,” for comment, and we’ll update this post if he responds.

Update, 5:45 pm: Will Hughes sent us a statement from the Advocates for the Arts Initiative. As we predicted, they’re “heartened” by the proposed changes, but still want a full-time director and the relocation of the Initiative away from the School of the Arts.

* Will has informed us that the Arts Initiative had an Associate Director in the past, but he left. So the hiring of a new Associate Director just means that the old one is being replaced. It doesn’t mean (as Smey’s email seemed to suggest) that the Arts Initiative is adding a new full-time position, which is what the Advocates for the Arts Initiative have called for.

Dear Friends of the Arts at Columbia:
This newsletter normally is dedicated to listing arts events on campus and around New York City. But today I want to discuss the “Save the Arts Initiative” petition and the status of this innovative program I am so proud to lead.

The thirteen hundred Columbians who have joined the petition constitute a remarkable community of art lovers who are one of the University’s great assets. To everyone who signed the petition, I say thank you for your passion and concern. Working together, we will be able to remedy shortcomings you have identified, strengthen the Arts Initiative, and develop new programming that engages an even larger segment of the University community. Indeed, several of these initiatives already are underway:

  • We will soon hire an Associate Director whose presence will substantially expand the Arts Initiative’s ability to involve you in the Initiative’s programming and keep you informed of our day-to-day activities.
  • An Advisory Group, including students, faculty, staff, and a member of President Bollinger’s office, is being formed to more tightly bind the Arts Initiative to the community of thousands of Columbians invested in the arts on and off campus.
  • In this spirit, we are committed to hearing student input regarding priorities for our incoming new Associate Director and also the redesign of the Arts Initiative website, both of which will be addressed in the coming months.
  • The continuation of the Gatsby Grants remains a bedrock commitment of the Arts Initiative, one that we are honoring not only by sustaining funding but also through consideration of ways to make the grant-making process more transparent.
  • And we are working with the deans of Columbia’s undergraduate schools to develop an equitable application process and identify funding to enable expanded access to Miller Theatre for use by recognized undergraduate student groups.

Along with noting these efforts to improve the Arts Initiative, I also want to offer observations about the health of the Initiative and the significant recent successes we have enjoyed: Sales by the Ticket and Information Center are at an all-time high. ArtsLink connected more than 150 classes (and over 3,000 Columbia students) with performances ranging from BAM to the Metropolitan Opera during the 2011-2012 academic year. Passport to New York made possible 39,000 free visits to 34 different New York museums last year, and the Morgan Library and Museum is a new addition this fall. We continue to allocate $60,000 every year for non-curricular student arts projects, the Gatsby Grants. And Morningside Lights, the new Museum Meet-Up program, and partnerships with the city’s top cultural institutions are injecting fresh energy into our programming.

Included in the large community of Columbians who care deeply about the Arts Initiative are many of the University’s leaders, among them President Bollinger, who established the program, and Deans Carol Becker and James Valentini, of the School of the Arts and the College, respectively. All of us share a common purpose. The work that lies ahead cannot be fairly understood, however, as “saving” the Arts Initiative because today the Arts Initiative is alive and well, and in no danger of departing the Columbia stage. The realization of plans already underway will help to make the Arts Initiative better and more engaged with the entire University community than it has ever been. I look forward to working with each of you to raise the Arts Initiative to new heights.

Melissa Smey
Executive Director

The Advocates for the Arts Initiative are heartened by the declaration from Melissa Smey and Dean Becker regarding the formation of a new student-faculty advisory committee for CUArts and the recent involvement of the Office of the University President in the issue. However, we maintain that the proposals offered tonight are not enough to ensure the success and sustainability of the Arts Initiative. An advisory committee is a good first step towards rebuilding the dialogue and trust between students and the administration of the School of the Arts, however it is not in and of itself a solution. Moreover, the announcement of an advisory board for CUArts comes as a (welcome) surprise to Columbia students because we also recall when the same exact thing was promised two years ago and then never delivered upon. Further steps must be taken to demonstrate the University is serious about preserving and cultivating a program that is one of the signature achievements of President Bollinger’s tenure and one of the hallmarks of the Columbia experience.

To ensure that the Arts Initiative remains a lasting and vital force promoting the arts in the lives of students, faculty, staff, and alumni, the following additional steps beyond forming an advisory board have been demanded by the signatories of the “Save the Arts Initiative” petition, student governments of all four undergraduate schools and the two largest club governing boards:

  • The hiring of a full-time Director of the Arts Initiative
  • The transfer of the Arts Initiative staff, programs, and budget line out of the School of the Arts and to a more flexible administrative home with experience working with many different constituencies
  • The restoration of staffing to levels appropriate to both maintain existing Arts Initiative programs like ArtsLink, Passport to New York, and the TIC booth and to allow the Arts Initiative to further grow and find new ways to bring the arts into Columbians’ lives.

Only when the Arts Initiative again has a flexible and responsive administrative home and a director able to devote to it the enormous amount of required time and energy can it continue to create innovative ways of bringing the arts into the lives of all members of the Columbia community. We recognize that Melissa Smey has been put in a very difficult position, and hope that moving forward, Dean Becker and the School of the Arts administration allow both Miller Theater and the Arts Initiative to grow and prosper by separating the two director positions.Just as Melissa Smey declared herself eager to work with those seeking to Save the Arts Initiative in her e-mail, we also look forward, very much, to working together to ensure the success of the Arts Initiative.

The Advocates for the Arts Initiative