October 24, 2010

Arts & Sacrifices

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Last week, Provost Kent Fuchs enthusiastically accepted the recommendations of the committee charged with evaluating the Cornell Council for the Arts. By implementing suggestions to radically alter the CCA’s operations, the University has severely hindered the CCA’s ability to realize its stated goals. Instead of continuing to fund individual grants to Cornell faculty, staff and student artists, the CCA will commit an overwhelming majority of its funding towards a “single, large scale, internationally significant event.” This shift in focus, from individual creativity to international visibility, goes against both the CCA’s mission to provide “a laboratory affording creative experiences through making and doing”, and Cornell’s commitment to be an institution where knowledge and art are not only consumed but created.

The fact that these dramatic changes will result in a 28-percent increase in the CCA’s base budget is misleading. While the program’s budget will increase from $175,000 to $225,000 per year, the newly recommended use for these funds — a headline-grabbing, one-off annual art event — will replace the distribution of individual grants, eliminating the council’s most valuable function. These grants made it possible for students and faculty to pursue their artistic ambitions, and to deny the same opportunity to future students — especially in the name of fleeting visibility and prestige — is a serious misstep by the University.

The committee’s report states that the current grants — averaging $1,480 — are “too small to enable work of significant scale and ambition.” This disregard for Cornellians’ individual achievements is not only disappointing but antithetical to the CCA’s mission. It fails to see how even a few thousand dollars can mean a great deal to an aspiring artist, or how CCA grants support organizations like Cornell Cinema. The committee deflects this criticism by maintaining that grants will continue to exist through funding from individual colleges. However, especially in the current economic climate, it is hard to believe that a similar level of interest and financing will come from these sources.

Instead, with its focus on blockbuster, even unrealistic events (bringing Martin Scorsese to campus for a three-day symposium or displaying the fuselage of a 787 on the Arts Quad), the plan implies that the University values visibility and publicity over individual initiative. The report suggests that increasing the visibility of the arts at Cornell will intrinsically help the study and practice of arts for students, but doesn’t prove this connection. Justifying the changes, the report reads: “While wide distribution and support for Cornell faculty and students is a desirable goal for the CCA, the Committee is unanimous in its opinion that the larger ambition of advancing international excellence, visibility, and creative synergy must be part of any future CCA.” It seems backwards that supporting faculty and students is desirable, but international excellence and visibility is a must.

Why is an arts-focused academic organization suddenly more concerned with Cornell’s visibility than offering support to its student and faculty artists? The University has an entire communications division devoted to promoting its image. It does not also need to co-opt the CCA for this purpose. Having jumbo-jets and world renowned directors on campus are big ideas that would be a welcome and exciting addition to the arts at Cornell — but not at the expense of the grants that support our own aspiring artists.