Leadership Q&A: Amplifying the Arts

Architect and historian Jonathan Massey is dean and professor of architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He has co-chaired the Arts Initiative since October 2019. He is an accomplished scholar of modern architecture and a leading authority on architecture and planning education. Massey holds a Bachelor of Arts and a PhD in architecture from Princeton University and a Master of Architecture from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Christina Olsen is the director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and a co-chair for the Arts Initiative. Olsen is a leading authority on museums and their future, and a scholar of Italian Renaissance art. She taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Williams College. Olsen received a bachelor’s degree in history of art, with honors, from the University of Chicago, and a master’s degree and a doctorate in art history from the University of Pennsylvania.

It was announced on Jan. 25 that the University of Michigan will allocate $20 million for its Arts Initiative to expand access with new programs and projects to engage university audiences, bring more artists to campus and support and amplify the arts across the state and region. Massey and Olsen answered questions about the Arts Initiative and discuss what they are looking forward to as the initiative continues to evolve and enter its next phase.

What is the Arts Initiative?

The Arts Initiative at the University of Michigan raises the visibility of and engagement with the arts across our campus by developing programs that support arts-centered research and creative work to advance the mission of the university. The Arts Initiative emphasizes the value of the arts in creating interdisciplinary spaces for collaboration and community-building — both through new projects and in collaboration with existing ones. It is an effort to amplify and deepen and strengthen the arts across the university, focused on student experience, research, and large scale public collaborations — all designed to strengthen and amplify the arts across the campuses at the U-M.

What led to the establishment of the Arts Initiative? 

Many of us were attracted to the University of Michigan because of its incredible depth and breadth in the arts. Whether that’s about presenting and the performing arts, or exhibiting and the visual arts, research and creativity, teaching and learning, student and alumni accomplishments, or faculty excellence. Several deans, directors, and arts leaders started talking about how we could collaborate to elevate the work happening in arts units, to cultivate intersections and synergies across different domains, and to help activate the arts in research, discovery, teaching and learning, public engagement all across the university, even in other fields like engineering or the humanities and social sciences or medicine and the health sciences. Out of these discussions, the Arts Initiative was born.

What were some of the main goals of the initiative? 

Ultimately, the arts initiative aims to build a better world through the arts. This includes a focus on ensuring the campus and student experience is transformed by the arts. The main goals of the startup phase were to begin to amplify a lot of the arts expressions and activities that were already taking place, but were not always connected. To begin to pilot approaches across student experience, across research, across artist residencies, and learn what might succeed and what we might invest further in to staff the initiative, to build interest among donors, and knowledge and interest among faculty and students.

One of our early goals was asset mapping. How can we understand the landscape of people, facilities, projects and programs, capabilities across campus that are already active in the arts or ready to be mobilized for greater impact? Another key part of our startup phase has been convening groups of people to think together about goals we might aim for in research and discovery, in teaching and learning. We also had goals in public engagement and providing value to the larger society and goals in institution building, capacity and support. The startup phase has also been marked by a spirit of learning by doing. We’ve tested a lot of our ideas through pilot programs and through prototypes – such as piloting research projects and curriculum initiatives, completing Travel Guide for Talking Hearts, launching Culture Corps with private philanthropic support, and engaging campus arts community in setting goals across four domains.

We figured that in addition to the talking, listening sessions, convenings and white paper work, we also wanted to put our ideas into action quickly and learn from what the larger community discovered in that process. So we’ve used RFP processes and open calls for participation to invite students, staff, and faculty to propose projects. We then support them and fund them and guide them and gather the results of their work to learn about the arts in the curriculum, to learn about the arts in research and discovery. So we’ve had both a conceptual process and an iterative testing and doing process.

What are you looking forward to as the initiative continues to expand?

As the initiative continues to expand, we’re looking forward to bringing in a diversity of artists – through programs like the TV Lab Artist Residency – and embedding them in research enterprises at the university. We want to learn how bringing different kinds of experts from in the arts and outside the arts together amplifies research both in the arts and in other fields.  We also hope to spotlight how students’ time at Michigan can be activated and enriched by the arts, both inside the curriculum and outside of it, and finally we’re eager to build the arts into the brand and the profile of the institution.

It’s exciting that we’ll be able to grow our core team of full-time staff and leaders so that we have the bandwidth and capacity to expand beyond the groups we’ve worked with in our startup phase to touch many more aspects of university life. So that programs that show promise in a pilot phase can become permanent parts of the student experience or the research experience for faculty. Bringing on a larger team, we will be able to power the initiative and activate a larger scale of funding and a longer time commitment to build programs, centers of expertise, projects and partnerships, that will take some of what we discovered during the startup phase and weave it permanently into the fabric of the University of Michigan. 

What are some things we can hope to see from the Arts Initiative in the next few years?

Some things we might see in the growth phase include scaling up a program called Culture Corps that supports University of Michigan undergraduates in paid internships with southeast Michigan arts organizations as a way to introduce students to the art world and equip them to be change makers in the art world — and also strengthen the arts ecosystem of our region and our state. We’re also partnering with LSA on a theme semester in Fall 2023 centered on Art and Resistance, which will support a fantastic array of large-scale public projects, lectures, symposia, courses, and student initiatives across the campus and city. It will be an exciting fall!  

The growth phase will also include a whole new level of support for arts research and arts-engaged research through the creation of a new faculty director to really lead and convene that conversation across disciplines within the arts and beyond. The growth phase will include scaling up our work with student-focused organizations through Arts at Michigan and Arts Engine; by joining forces with these existing programs, we can expand our audience and our reach to touch all Michigan student experiences across the undergraduate and graduate programs.

How will the Arts Initiative continue to impact the campus community and communities across Michigan?

The community will see the initiative have a profound impact on the whole region in terms of how dynamic it is as a site for experiencing art and supporting local artists themselves. We will see arts integrated into many student experiences and it will have a powerful impact on the university and its culture.

We hope that at the end of the growth phase, we have a campus that is activated by the arts in the classroom, outside the classroom, in public and campus-centered activities, in our physical surroundings, the landscape, the buildings, public art, and in our culture in ways that are already very palpable through the prominence of the performing arts here, for instance, so that we are living lives that are enriched intellectually and experientially and culturally by the unique insights and empathy opportunities that the arts provide.

One of the ways we challenge and inspire ourselves is to imagine a University of Michigan in which the arts are as pervasive and central to our campus and community as football is today. Just as we see the Leaders and Best spirit coming out to the Big House on Saturdays for football games, in a moment that brings together so many aspects of campus and community toward a shared passion, we see the potential for the arts to play just as powerful a role in convening and elevating our community.