February 2, 2010

Students, Faculty Respond To Performing Arts Cuts

Print More

About 30 students and several faculty members gathered in the Schwartz Center yesterday to discuss how Cornell’s performing arts program could survive in light of the potentially crippling budget cuts announced Monday. Arts and Sciences Dean Peter LePage asked Monday that the department reduce its budget by $400,000 immediately and up to two million dollars annually, which would amount to one-third of the six million dollar budget cuts he proposed for the College of Arts and Sciences.

The conversation exposed a major split in the department over how to handle the cuts. While many department members believe “everybody should suffer equally,” said Professor Bruce Levitt theater, others argue that it would be better to “cut one program” (theater, film or dance) rather than reduce all three. But Levitt pointed out that many staff members work for multiple programs.

“If a seamstress is cut in the costume shop, that affects both dancers and actors,” Levitt said.

LePage’s claim that the department could “maintain a vigorous program” on a smaller budget also struck a nerve.

“It is going to force us to reimagine the Schwartz,” said Ian Harkins ’11.

“Everything that makes the Cornell theatre experience unique will be crippled beyond recognition,” Bridget Saracino ’11, a theater major, wrote via email.

Although other schools keep theater studies separate from production — Yale, for instance, maintains an academic department devoted to theater and runs all of its drama productions through its residential house program — Cornell has always integrated production and study.

A recent survey showed that approximately 1,200 students take classes in the department each year. The classes most likely to be eliminated are Introduction to Acting, which enrolls about 100 students, Theater Arts 1510, a hands-on design program, and the entire dance program, which enrolls 300 to 400 students each year, Bruce Eissner, chair of Cornell’s Committee on the Arts, wrote in a note.

“It’s going to fall to the students to keep the department alive,” said Juliana Kleist-Mendez ’12. “As students we’re not trained to do the positions … if we break something it’ll end up being more expensive.”

Liability issues would not present the only drawback. Students who are passionate about staging performances would have to give up academic classes “in order to be in [Schwartz] learning to do the things you need to know to do the shows,” Levitt said. “That’s not the model Cornell has ever had.”

When the department moved to the Schwartz Center in 1983, there were 40 people on staff, Levitt said. Although the department has grown since then, only 30 staff members remain.

“It’s ironic that we’re going to lose another group of those people,” Levitt said.

Cornell has invested over $100 million in the arts, subsidizing the Johnson Museum and Milstein Hall, the new architecture building under construction. But remaining a world-class research institution means prioritizing academic areas like science and math, which in turn means making up any financial shortfall by cutting other areas, Levitt said.

“We were expecting half a million dollars,” Levitt said. “This was a real kick in the gut.”

Asa Craig ’11, who attended the meeting both as a student trustee and as a “fan of the arts,” suggested that the theater department could minimize its losses by aiming for the low end of the spectrum. Since the dean proposed cuts of one to two million dollars, Craig said, “go for the million dollar mark” rather than protesting the cuts altogether.

“The fact that it’s a range, that’s the power,” he said.

Many of the students had already sent emails of protest to the administration, but they said they received “generic” responses. Tim Ostrander, props coordinator, said that when he asked Lepage if he had spoken to any theater students, the dean was noncommittal.

“He kind of said yes in the way somebody does when they don’t really mean it,” Ostrander said. He encouraged students to continue trying to get in touch with the dean and, along with Levitt, emphasized the importance of explaining the value of the Schwartz Center to the administration.

“Production is, I think, viewed as an extracurricular activity,” Levitt said. “They don’t get what we do.”

Sonja Lanzener, one of the department’s several residential teaching associates, advised students that the situation could serve as a learning experience.

“If you are interested in having a relationship with the arts in America, this is something you’re going to run into again and again,” she said. “The same situation [of artists being deprived of funds] has been going on for 30 years. An artist needs to be a warrior. Welcome to the battle.”

Original Author: Elisabeth Rosen