November 1, 2010

Threatening Creativity

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Although I was asked to write this in my capacity as interim director of the Cornell Council for the Arts, the statement reflects my own position, not necessarily that of the entirety of the CCA constituency. I am also a member of the faculty of the Department of Music, and I speak here as a private citizen and member of the larger artistic community.

Cornell is in the process of “reimagining” itself, as stated in its strategic planning report published last academic year. As part of that effort, it is reimagining the place of the creative arts in its mission and in its future. Even though Cornell has more offerings in more artistic disciplines (Performance, Visual Arts, Creative Writing, Spatial Arts) than any of her peer institutions, spanning several colleges within the University, the struggle for a place at the table for the arts goes back generations. Efforts to centralize resources date to the 1950’s when now-retired writer/professor James McConkey created what is now known as the Cornell Council for the Arts.

A report released last week, drafted by an ad hoc committee chaired by Kent Kleinman, dean of the College of Art, Architecture and Planning, recommends a restructuring that has raised deep concerns among faculty, students and departments, fearing not only a threat to individual creativity, but an indication that the arts as serious disciplines are being pushed even further back on the University’s agenda.

Through many iterations, one program that has stayed central to the CCA mission has been the awarding of grants to individual students, faculty, departments, staff and campus organizations, based on fair competition and a professional-level application process open to anyone in any area. The modest but impactful funds for these grants have been provided by the Office of the Provost since 1967.

In recent days, the report mentioned above, and released by that same office, announced that the CCA will change its mission and structure beginning in the fall of 2011, replacing existing programs with one annual event that the report refers to as “le grand projet;” a publicity-seeking blockbuster with a star at its center and themed satellite events spinning off from it.

Though there is nothing wrong with this model on the surface, there was immediate alarm among faculty and students that large portions of the Cornell population would be left out of the mix with no resources remaining for their own creative work. These concerns long preceded the release of the report, which was drafted in an atmosphere of secrecy and lack of transparency that excluded most of the constituency that would be directly affected by it.

As is usually the case, smoke and mirrors only made the situation worse, and have contributed to the current impasse. The provost has promised to distribute an equal amount to the 12-member departments for two years only, and in the proportion that those departments were awarded grants over the last two years. Unfortunately, this leaves out anyone who did not apply for funding in the last two years, members of departments who are not represented in the CCA-12 and all staff and student organizations. It also eliminates the competitive process of grant writing and relies on the discretion of department chairs who, additionally, will need to devise a protocol for distribution.

In other words, fairness and inclusion disappear.

Frightening enough for the current Cornell community, this report is, arguably, an analog for the tendency in our culture to suppress the uncontrollable and subjective individual imagination in favor of a product that fits a preordained mold. Our public education system increasingly measures success by standardized test scores, not creative thinking. Is it not reasonable to expect an institution of the stature and size of Cornell to do better by its students, who will take that message out into the world with them?

Even in the face of financial crises, it is no accident that Cornell’s peer institutions — Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Brown, to name a few — have diligently retained faculty and student artistic communities in the forefront of their intellectual mission and their public image. There is no argument among educational scholars and practitioners that “art,” in the broadest sense of the word, is essential to the whole human, including mental and spiritual health, and we should all use our privileged positions in the academy to make sure we further that mission.

This column was originally published on Oct. 27 by The Ithaca Times. To support the Preserve Grants to Cornell Artists campaign, click here. Judith Kellock is the interim director for the Cornell Council for the Arts and associate professor of music.  She may be contacted at jgk6@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Judith Kellock