Dean's Newsletter

A newsletter from Dean Katherine S. Newman

Opening the Door to the Arts

What is the place of the arts in the curriculum of a great research university? How does the practice of art—the creative work of novelists, film makers, dramaturges, musicians, and dancers—complement the scholarly study of its history or internal structure? These questions are being asked with increasing frequency in universities around the country as we grapple with the value of the aesthetic, the roots of creativity and innovation, and the deep satisfaction we take from the fruits of the arts.

Johns Hopkins has come late to this conversation, but we are positioned to benefit from those who have gone before us. On Friday, October 14, members of the Krieger School faculty, our students, and our partners from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) will gather with distinguished colleagues from the Mellon Foundation, the University of Chicago, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to debate the impact of arts education in the 21st century.

This “Futures Seminar” on the arts will bring the Krieger School community as a whole into a discussion which began in the summer of 2010, when I asked Winston Tabb, dean of the university libraries and museums, and Jeff Sharkey, director of the Peabody Conservatory, to convene a faculty task force to consider the right way forward for our undergraduate and graduate programs in the arts. For more than a year now, its members have been formulating recommendations to expand and deepen our commitment to the arts.

It is time to involve a broader audience in this conversation and compare notes with universities who have already answered the questions our task force has been pondering. A number of distinguished institutions, including most recently Princeton, Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford, have committed themselves to the arts: incorporating practicing artists into the teaching faculty, providing students – whether talented in these fields or, like me, barely able to draw stick figures – with avenues of creative self-expression. To the gifted mathematicians and the students of political theory, they have added the pioneering filmmaker, the introspective painter, and the would-be museum curator.

Students of this stripe have already made their way to the Krieger School. Last spring, I had the pleasure of attending the annual dance showcase in Shriver Hall, where our students in modern dance and ballet performed a half dozen pieces of their own design. The Swirnow Theater in the Mattin Arts Center hosts co-curricular programs featuring musicals, comedies, and dramas. Next door in the Merrick Barn, our Theatre Arts and Studies Program (which offers a minor) has dedicated part-time lecturers and volunteers who develop myriad activities on a shoe-string budget. We can do better than this.

Our Futures Seminar will be followed by an external review of these programs. Distinguished practitioners and scholars of the arts from California Institute of the Arts, Duke University’s program in dance, Brown University’s theater department, Columbia University’s department of music, will arrive on campus in early November to offer constructive criticism and informed suggestions for the development of the arts in the Krieger School.

This mission matters well beyond the walls of Johns Hopkins. A vibrant arts program on campus will enhance our role in the city of Baltimore, which is becoming an increasingly influential and desirable “arts destination,” particularly for younger musicians – from rock to classical-performance artists, film makers, and visual artists in search of the East Coast alternative to Seattle. A walk around the neighborhood of Station North, just south of the Homewood campus, leads to a new apartment building for low-income artists, with the words “City Arts” wrapped around the roof. Its two-year wait list testifies to Baltimore’s growing reputation as a home for the creative class. More than 30 theater companies, on stage in clubs, basements, and churches, are active in the city now. The Maryland Film Festival is taking its place as a showcase for independent cinema. In fact, Matthew Porterfield, a lecturer in our Film and Media Studies Program, took top awards in the 2010 festival with his feature film called Putty Hill. These new developments are building on the success of more established institutions from the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, to the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum, and the American Visionary Art Museum, not to mention the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra or our own Evergreen Museum and Library.

It is time for the Krieger School to take our fledgling programs in the creative arts to the level of excellence we recognize in the Writing Seminars, one of the jewels in the university’s crown. We will be able to build a bridge to the Peabody Conservatory, to the arts emphasis growing at the Berman Institute of Bioethics, and the related programs in the School of Education.

John Adams, the nation’s second president, was part of that great Revolutionary War generation tested by the hardship of battle and the bitter political struggles that divided the loyalists from the American nationalists. In his letters to his wife, Abigail, Adams remarked that his compatriots studied war and politics so that their children could study mathematics and philosophy, navigation and commerce. But the practical concerns of his sons would “give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”1

We owe it to our students to take Adams’ admonition seriously. When we have done so, the Krieger School will take as much pride in the accomplishments of our alumni curators, painters, novelists, choreographers, and filmmakers as we do in the chemists, astronomers, scientists, philosophers, and anthropologists who got their start in our classrooms.

Sincerely,

Katherine S. Newman
James B. Knapp Dean

1Letter to Abigail Adams (1780) in John Adams and Charles Francis Adams, Letters of John Adams, addressed to his wife (1841), p. 68.