Foundation awards VC creative arts grant

The College announced on Feb. 7 that it has received a grant of $750,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation to work on projects from 2014 to 2017. The grant is titled “The Creative Arts Across Disciplines” and builds on a similar project that Vassar completed in the 2010/11 academic year, “Visiting Artists at Vassar,” which was also backed by the Mellon foundation. A steering committee was formed at the end of January to direct the application of the grant. The steering committee includes representatives from each creative arts department, as well as members of other departments.

The faculty members include Professor of English and Media Studies Heesok Chang, Professor of Studio Art Peter Charlap, Professor of Drama Gabrielle Cody, Professor of Music Christine Howlett, Professor of Dance Miriam Mahdaviani, Professor of Film Mia Mask, and Professor of Physics Cindy Schwarz. Leading the committee are Professor of Anthropology Thomas Porcello and Dean of Faculty Jonathon Chennette.

Porcello spoke to the composition of the steering committee, saying in an emailed statement, “There is a representative of each creative art department on the steering committee, and we anticipate that those departments will be both originators and partners with other departments in submitting proposals to the steering committee.”

As to the more concrete goals of the grant, Porcello said, “There are several goals for the grant… enabl[ing] programming that…encourages collaboration between arts departments as well as between the arts and other disciplines…The activities funded by the grant ideally will underscore that core artistic concepts and practices are widely applicable across the totality of a liberal arts education and ethos.”

VSA VP for Academics, Shruti Manian ’14, the current student representative to the committee, spoke to the possibility of the grant from the students’ perspective, saying, “I think the grant is very exciting because it really exemplifies Vassar’s commitment to a multi-dimensional education. Students will be able to approach traditional academic disciplines and assignments with some exciting creative flair.”

Manian continued, “Creative thinking often fosters greater engagement with the community around you. I think the student body will also benefit from the new and unique ways of learning that are bound to come about as a result of this grant.”

Either Manian or another student from the VSA Academics Committee will contribute to the steering committee’s discussions throughout its deliberations. According to Chennette, “The student representative will serve as a liaison with the academics committee and other students to provide input and ideas as the grant develops.”

As dictated by the Mellon grant, each year of the project will have a specific theme around which to center its programming and goals. According to Porcello, Vassar has stipulated the theme of “The Senses” to the Mellon foundation, proposing that each year of the grant’s projects will focus on a different sense. Porcello said of the theme, “[The committee] talked at length about whether this would remain the thematic focus or whether there might be other compelling ideas that could emerge from steering committee discussion. Of particular value about the senses as the theme is that the concept is both essential to understanding human experience and has a conceptual breadth that is of potential interest and relevance to all academic fields of study.”

While no programming plans have been established thus far, both Porcello and Manian spoke to the upcoming processes for potential events. First, according to Porcello, the steering committee will issue “calls for proposals” to the various academic departments, hoping to get ideas about possible programming including artist residencies and new courses. These proposals will set the plans for next year’s programming.

In the meantime, he said, “We do hope that we will find one or two faculty members who will be able to work on a pilot project with a small group of students this summer in a ‘Multi-Arts Collective,’ modeled closely on the long-standing Ford and URSI Programs.”

Manian described the faculty as excited about this prospect. Porcello echoed her observation, saying, “There is a tremendous amount of excitement both within the steering committee and among faculty who have already approached us with expressions of interest for projects they would like to explore, artists they are interested in approaching, and courses they might seek to develop.”

According to Porcello, the College’s ability to receive the grant was based on their success with 2010-11 grant, “Visiting Artists at Vassar.” Porcello said, “That grant was explicitly conceived as a pilot project that, at the time, we said if it was successful, the college would consider approaching the Mellon Foundation for a larger grant to do a more sustained and richer follow-up…”

Porcello went on, saying, “[The Visiting Artists and Vassar] projects did an excellent job of illustrating the potential that creative art can bring to areas of study—in these two cases, women’s rights, conflict and war, and nationalism—more often associated with non-arts disciplines.”

After the completion of those projects, Porcello said that the steering committee engaged in an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses and decided that they were in a position to go back to the Mellon Foundation with a larger, refined request. That proposal was sent to the foundation in the fall of 2013, and we received notification of its success in December.

Porcello urged student involvement, saying, “I strongly encourage students to engage as fully as possible in the events, courses and other kinds of programming that will result from Mellon’s generosity and the faculty’s initiative. As soon as proposals are evaluated and approved by the steering committee, we will make sure that information about events, courses, and other opportunities for students are widely disseminated.”

Porcello stated that further information regarding the final theme and other aspects of the forthcoming project will be solidified in the next few weeks.

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