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Art departments sculpt vision of unity with new college


MacArthur Fellow and Third Ward arts pioneer Rick Lowe was the first faculty member the new College of the Arts hired. | Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

After years of growth and expansion, the UH arts community is ready to be on their own.

Starting Thursday, the College of the Arts will break off and chart a new course of collaboration and creation within UH and in the greater Houston area.  All the programs will be under one dean, Andrew Davis, former director of the Moores School of Music, and have one central administration office.

The shift occurred in February when the Board of Regents approved the new College of the Arts, which comprises the School of Art, Moores School of Music, the School of Theatre and Dance, Blaffer Art Museum, the Cynthia Mitchell Woods Center for the Arts, Center for Arts Leadership and the Graduate Program for Arts Management.

An ideal college

Three years ago, around the time when Paula Short was hired as provost, talks of a College of the Arts were fervent. Besides having a report from the chairs of each art department, Short hired Davis as “planning dean” to transition to a college.

After breaking away from the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, the College of the Arts will have to fend for itself. Instead of adding any new classes or departments, Davis said they will only be re-organizing units, which is not as easy as it sounds.

“There were a surprising amount of complications, with the online aspect of admitting students into a new college,” Davis said. “We had to hire advisers and find out who will oversee college facilities like the preforming arts venues, which were previously kept up by the individual departments.”

Even though CLASS has almost 10,000 students and and a diverse group of disciplines, Davis is thankful to the help CLASS for providing the College of the Arts with tips regarding operation.

Karen Farber, the director of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center, has been in her role since 2005. She said the College of the Arts will concentrate leadership and foster collaboration.

Eventually, the entire student body will begin to notice a bold brand emerge, said Rob Shimko, the new director of the School of Theatre and Dance.

Shimko, who’s been teaching in the department for 10 years, said talks about unlinking from CLASS had been brewing for a few years before the announcement in February. He said he immediately began planning for a more harmonious future.

“After asking organizational questions, I started dreaming,” Shimko said. “I asked what was possible. I liked the idea of spending more time in the room with my peers in the music department and at Blaffer, and that came to fruition.”

While Shimko believes artists have a tendency to find one another, having a central administration will be necessary as the college marches toward the future.

“Sometimes you hear the administration of a college is not impacting creativity, that it is dry,” Shimko said. “But to his credit, Dean Davis is not just thinking in terms of efficiency, he’s also thinking in a visionary way about what the arts mean on a major urban campus, and that’s exciting.”

Arts students, staff and faculty members will now mingle across their separate buildings, a testament of strengthening the bond between and creating a community of artists.

Artistic involvement

Associate professor and MacArthur fellow Rick Lowe was the first professor the College of the Arts hired. Lowe joined the faculty because of their collaborative approach and vision for the Houston arts scene.

“It was suggested to me that the formation of the College of the Arts was representative of a broader effort of trying to beef up the college,” Lowe said. “My reputation as an artist is built on my practice at Project Row houses, and I saw it as an opportunity to build a relationship between the organization and campus.”

Lowe is teaching a course on social and community engaged-art, a close-knit class built on his vision that students should learn through engagement.

While his goal as a professor is to help the Third Ward and UH work together, Lowe tells his students not to jump right into a situation without thinking.

“My goal with my class is encouraging students as participants willing to learn from the community and not to go there with ready-made ideas about how to solve things,” Lowe said. “They should go in with an understanding that you have to pay attention and learn about the community before you start applying yourself.”

Dance senior Anastasiya Kopteva founded CotA Connects, an organization that strives to showcase and create just the kind of art Lowe encourages. It allows a space for UH students and members of the community to display interdisciplinary work and form problem-solving projects.

Kopteva, who first came to school in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, believes the college can shape the entire university.

“Work between the disciplines is seen unique as if it is the exception to the rule,” Kopteva said. “I believe that this kind of work should be encouraged and become the norm. The College of the Arts is being created to address these issues, aiming to foster a level of community and understanding between the different colleges.”

H-Town nails the art down

Lowe warned that universities must avoid getting bogged down with their own problems and need to explore how they can improve their surrounding communities.

“The University and the community are doing their own things, and when they come together, they rarely see what they are both doing to help each other,” Lowe said. “I think it’s a special niche that the arts can play, and my practice is bridging that gap.”

Houston’s growing importance as an arts destination needs a strong UH presence. Shimko said it is important that the arts have a shared vision.

With the city’s theater scene blossoming into one of the most important in the country, Shimko believes it is important that College of the Arts students know they don’t have to go far to make an impact.

“It is really important to communicate to a graduating senior that you don’t need to move to New York, Chicago or Los Angeles,” Shimko said. “There is really interesting and exciting things happening here, that is a great city to stay in and build up on.”

Davis believes the College’s goal should be focused on the concrete ways the arts can lift up the community while still amazing its patrons.

“We want this to be a destination in the city and this university,” Davis said. “Not just art for art’s sake.”

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