December 6, 2021

LORENZEN | Any Person, Any Study… Except for the Performing Arts

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“Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

I almost didn’t apply to Cornell. This school has changed my life — providing me with the greatest opportunities, the dearest friends and best experiences of my life thus far. But, I did not originally want to go here. It was not on my list of colleges four years ago. I knew that it had a good reputation. I had one cousin who went here and loved it, but my aspirations were to enter the world of film and theater. I wanted to write plays, screenplays and fiction. And I knew from my research that the Cornell administration’s history of supporting such artistic pursuits was abysmal.

There was a strange dichotomy — Cornell had one of the greatest track records when it came to producing creative luminaries in film and theater, yet the administration had one of the worst track records for supporting undergraduates in those fields. Cornell’s alumni list is a veritable who’s who of industry leaders. There’s Howard Hawks (‘17) — one of the greatest film directors of all time (Scarface, The Big Sleep, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). There’s Paula Vogel (‘76, ‘16)— the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of How I Learned to Drive. There’s Sam Gold (‘00) — Tony Award winning director of Fun Home. There’s Thelma Schoonmaker (‘61) — the three time Academy Award winning film editor of Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed. Even Superman graduated from Cornell! Christopher Reeve (‘74) cut his teeth on Cornell stages.

But, when a high school applicant researches Cornell’s Performing and Media Arts Department, they first find Cornell’s history of gutting their funding. The major itself — encompassing film, theater and dance — was created after the Cornell administration slashed the department’s budget by a million dollars. Cornell took the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance and cut its budget so severely that it could not survive anymore. When I researched Cornell in high school, that is what I found. And that is why I initially didn’t see myself applying.

Yet on the literal last possible day, I decided to throw together an application. I wrote my supplemental essay in screenplay format and submitted it just before the deadline, expecting little to come from it. But what came of it was the past four years of my life. And those four years of my life have been shaped indelibly for the better by the unbelievable talent, support and guidance of all those within the Performing and Media Arts Department. PMA’s faculty are preposterously brilliant and supportive of student work. They go above and beyond to nurture artistic endeavors at a school that tends to cast such endeavors aside. And the students who walk the halls of the Schwartz Center each and every day take the legacy of all those aforementioned alumni and run with it. The Performing and Media Arts Department represents the best of this University, and I am proud to be one small part of it.

That’s why it breaks my heart that over ten years after the budget cuts that created this department were instituted, the Cornell administration still does not take its commitment to performing arts seriously. Sitting on PMA’s Programming & Curriculum Committee, I see firsthand the fraught budgetary decisions that the department must make as a result of its insufficient funding. 

The yearly budget for PMA productions is 50 thousand dollars — a number that is less than the funding levels of some student organizations. The average play production tends to run around 10 thousand dollars. This year, the department has 5 incredibly talented student filmmakers making thesis films, most of which need a budget of 5 thousand dollars at least. Supporting thesis projects alone can take up half of that budget. Students and faculty are perpetually ready to step forward and create outstanding work, but the specter of limited funding lingers over everything. You can’t fund every project, but the first thought when staging a PMA production should not consistently be “How on Earth will we get the money?!”

The funding woes trickle down to every area of the department. As PMA tries to bring in more BIPOC guest artists, there is no funding to pay for their travel and housing. While Ithaca has a lovely arts scene, few BIPOC working artists in these fields can afford to pause their careers and move to Ithaca for a semester while paying two rents. And if they choose to commute to classes, they still will not receive funding to cover their expenses. It makes Cornell a less attractive destination and stifles efforts to bring in diverse voices to the department.

And that is all without mentioning how insufficient funding and continued cuts hurt staff retention. When the pandemic started, Cornell understandably faced the need to economize across the University. Yet, where was the first place they immediately looked to cut? The dance program, laying off two dance instructors. In a moment where it would be harder than ever for dancers to be able to continue to produce work, Cornell responded by getting rid of their professors.

The end-result of this dynamic is a Catch-22. The Performing and Media Arts Department struggles to maintain a high profile on campus amidst insufficient funding, leading to fewer majors and greater ease for the administration to cut their funding further. All the while, students who are deeply passionate about the department continue to work with faculty who continue to  go above and beyond to support them while receiving scarce resources to do so. This happens while elsewhere in the University, brand new colleges are sprouting up. Yet, the department that leads all performing arts at a school with a proud history of producing luminaries in that field consistently is underfunded. It’s unacceptable.

If the Cornell administration still believes in any person, any study, it should provide the performing arts with the funding it deserves. It should see not only Cornell’s proud history in these fields but also the ancillary benefits of honing the personal and creative skills of students across countless majors who dabble in acting, writing, dance and other artistic pursuits, enhancing their performance in their primary studies. Cornell should, simply put, value the Performing and Media Arts department for all it provides to this University. And to do that, it has to put its money where its mouth is.

Andrew V. Lorenzen is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Wednesday this semester.