Melissa Smey, executive director of Miller Theatre and executive director of the Arts Initiative at Columbia University, announced several changes to the initiative two Thursdays ago. In the wake of the remarkable support to restore CUArts,. 1300 students and alumni signed our petition. All four undergraduate councils, as well as the Student Governing Board and the Activities Board at Columbia, passed resolutions calling for the same reforms. Smey’s email acceded to one of our demands: a CUArts advisory committee of students, faculty, staff, and a representative from President Bollinger’s office. For this, we are hopeful and thankful. However, to answer the question Bwog posed in a recent article—“Has the Arts Initiative Been Saved?”—the answer is very clearly, “Not yet.”
Three years ago, concerned students in and outside the arts community formed the Advocates of the Arts Initiative in response to the move of the Arts Initiative from the Office of the President to the School of the Arts, and to the subsequent changes in structure, programming, and support. As a first-year, I signed in support of their concerns. Since then, I have witnessed the gradual decline in CUArts, and this semester, I have been a part of a group of students fighting to save it. We have fought for several reforms, including the advisory committee and restored funding, which President Bollinger said he would be open to discussing. However, I wanted to speak specifically about the importance of a full-time director and a move out of the School of the Arts because these two steps are both the most important to respond to student concerns.
We continue to seek a new home for the Arts Initiative in addition to new leadership. A professional school is not set up to serve extracurricular and co-curricular needs of students from schools across a university. This was a main concern of the Advocates for the Arts Initiative when the move to the School of the Arts was announced in 2009. Time has shown this concern to be well-founded. While moving the Arts Initiative to a professional school was a strategic error due to a misalignment of cultures and mission, it is by no means too late to course-correct by moving the Arts Initiative to a more flexible home with much experience in engaging with students and other stakeholders in order to craft meaningful programs.
Another concern is the current leadership demands on the executive director of the Arts Initiative. For the previous executive director, the Arts Initiative was more than a full-time job. Currently, Melissa Smey serves as executive director of both Miller Theatre and the Arts Initiative. While it has been suggested that there may be some benefits from having one person in both positions, we consider this a hindrance for both organizations. We deserve an executive director who can focus their full attention on the Arts Initiative, just as Melissa Smey deserves the opportunity to fully engage in leading Miller Theatre. We appreciate that the move to the School of the Arts was well-intentioned, just as we believe Melissa Smey is a capable executive director of Miller Theatre. I have met with both Melissa Smey and Dean Carol Becker at the School of the Arts to discuss these concerns, and these conversations have only further convinced me of the need for the reforms for which we have petitioned.
CUArts is more than a program. It allows Columbia to differentiate itself among peer institutions. It is truly one of the University’s greatest assets in connecting the campus community to New York City, a cultural and artistic capital of the world. Students across this campus recognize and appreciate the role of the arts in a University education. I am very pleased that an advisory committee is being formed and that student group use of Miller Theatre is being revisited. But these moves represent a first step, not a solution. To preserve its success, and to allow it to grow and thrive, CUArts must have an institutional home reflecting its mission and the attention of a full-time director to see these efforts through. Only then can future generations of Columbians truly enjoy the full success of President Bollinger’s vision.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in biology. She is the treasurer of the Columbia University Performing Arts League and a former producer of the Varsity Show.