American Universities Are Investing In New Prestige Arts Buildings. And How About The Programs?

American universities are making big investments in new arts facilities. At least a half-dozen major projects are coming online this year. Why?

Schools now think of the arts less as a peripheral extracurricular activity than as an opportunity for innovative collaboration. At Stanford, for example, medical students examine the Rodin sculptures at the Cantor Arts Center to learn about conditions that afflict the hand. Meanwhile, Rice is due to open the Moody Center for the Arts next month, a $30m exhibition-cum-interdisciplinary laboratory space. “I’ve learned how important visual imagination is to thinking about science and engineering,” says David Leebron, the university’s president.

A few years ago Princeton announced it intended to be an arts destination. USC declares its desire to be known as an arts university. Duke and Stanford and Columbia all have the arts on their minds. Is there really such a demand?

The rising demand is leading schools that have traditionally marginalised the arts to enter a new kind of arms race. Princeton University in New Jersey “was losing students to some of our rival universities because we didn’t have the visibility in the arts that we should”, says Michael Cadden, the chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, which anchors a 22-acre, $330m arts-and-transportation hub due to open in October. Princeton has 30% to 40% more students studying the arts than it did ten years ago, according to Cadden.

Arts facilities can have a tangible effect on the kind of talent schools attract. In the decade since Duke University in North Carolina opened the Nasher Museum of Art, it has seen a steep climb in arts portfolios submitted by prospective students, from 980 in 2006 to more than 2,800 last year.

The reality of the “arts boom” in universities is perhaps a bit more modest. There’s clearly money available to be raised for new museums and facilities. The buildings are prestigious and good campus eye candy that donors can attach their names to. But is there evidence yet of a similar uptick in the scale of investment in the arts programs?

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