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CFA at 50: world-class in music, theater, visual arts

Painter Joel Gill (CFA’04) received a master’s degree from CFA last year. Photo courtesy of the College of Fine Arts

This story was published in the BU Bridge on February 4, 2005.

Ann Kirchner’s zeal for Victorian-era novels has shaped her experience in higher education, but lately the senior painting major at the College of Fine Arts has noticed that her fervor seems contagious. Last semester, Kirchner took one of her favorite texts, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and began reproducing the first page of the novel in her art. Many of her classmates at CFA, noting this unconventional approach, decided to explore the painting’s literary heritage on their own.

“It’s made me very happy to see it,” says Kirchner (CAS’05, CFA’05), who is also majoring in English at the College of Arts and Sciences. “I hung up Anna Karenina in the hallway, and people came up to me and said, ‘I read the entire book over break! My parents thought I was crazy.’”

The blend of fine and liberal arts that characterizes Kirchner’s work has long been a highly valued trait at CFA. This year the college celebrates its 50th anniversary, marking the year all the programs were consolidated into one school, with 12 months of exhibitions, concerts, and performances. Students, faculty, and alumni are all joining in the festivities to celebrate the college’s unique status — a conservatory in the midst of a major research university, itself located in one of the world’s most culturally rich cities — and planning for its future. Even in light of the college’s reputation for famous Hollywood alumni and valuable affiliations with groups such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Huntington Theatre Company, those who know CFA best say that its continued excellence depends on the artists who infuse their own passion into their studies and instruction and the liberal arts resources that offer unlimited opportunities for inspiration.

“There’s an intellectual vitality here,” says CFA Dean ad interim Walt Meissner. “We’re not just educating practitioners; we’re educating the thinking artist.”

“To be an artist, one needs to be more than simply a performer,” adds André de Quadros, director of the school of music. “One needs to be an educated person, to understand history, study languages, and have a broad understanding of the liberal arts. And I think that Boston University does offer that, in a way that many other institutions simply couldn’t.”

The history of CFA begins with the school of music, since its status as the oldest degree-granting conservatory in the United States has long served as a powerful draw for faculty and students alike. Founded in 1872 by William Claflin (son of Lee Claflin, one of BU’s founders), the school offered American musicians the earliest opportunity for advanced study in their own country. Students could also pursue a liberal arts degree at BU and take courses at the New England Conservatory.

The first incarnation of the school dissolved in 1891, but the blend of fine and liberal arts, as well as the collaborations with other local institutions, established the type of training and scholarship that would later come to define the school. Today, says de Quadros, the college is a “Bauhaus of artistic activity,” thanks in part to its ability to grow over time.

“The school of music itself has almost everything that one could expect in a music institution,” he says. “It has theory and composition, musicology, it has all the essential aspects of a performance program, and of course it has music education.”

The variety, he says, has played a critical role in attracting the professional performers and composers who make up the school’s faculty. They are able to specialize and also explore different disciplines with professors from other schools and departments. De Quadros, for example, is working with the School of Public Health to analyze the role of music in public and global health-care systems. “You couldn’t do that if you were just a stand-alone conservatory,” he points out.

The professional opportunities available to faculty and students are equally significant, based on the University’s relationship with several major music organizations throughout Boston. The school of music has partnerships or collaborations with Boston Baroque, the Tanglewood Institute, ALEA III, and the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras, among others, and the faculty provide informal connections to dozens of other organizations, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra. David Hoose, the director of the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and a professor of music, also directs the Cantata Singers and Collage New Music. Associate Professor Bayla Keyes is a violinist in the groups Triple Helix and Boston Musica Viva. And the Muir String Quartet, a Boston institution, has been in residence at the school since 1983.

The city itself has also been vital to the growth and development of many musicians. “When you open the Boston Globe in the morning, you can read all about the things that are happening in the city — academic life, artistic life, sports,” says Joy McIntyre, an associate professor emerita and former chairman of the voice department. “You may not be able to go to all of these events, but the fact that they are happening pervades the intellectual atmosphere. I think it’s very good for young people who are training for professional music careers. It shows them what the context is for their music.”

A blend of intensive studio study and abundant outside resources also defines the programs at the school of visual arts, formally opened in 1954 but rooted in the former College of Practical Arts and Letters, established in 1919. The undergraduate curriculum stresses classical training based in drawing, painting, sculpture, and design, but requires students to take liberal arts electives to broaden their repertoire. “It’s hugely important to have skills,” says Judith Simpson, the school’s director, “but if you don’t have anything to say, it’s not always a successful career.”

The importance of “a solid grounding in the disciplines” and fundamentals of art has always been the central vision of the school, says Harold Reddicliffe, an associate professor of painting, who arrived at BU in 1987. With required courses in drawing, geometric forms, and two- and three-dimensional design, the program is labor-intensive. But the educational experience is very different from what a traditional art school would provide, according to faculty. Reddicliffe says his best students have had a wide variety of academic interests, ranging from the humanities to the sciences. At CFA, he says, they are able to pursue those interests, and bring the knowledge into their art.

“It’s a very different sense than I remember from students at art schools,” he says. “It’s a real exchange.”

The practice has worked well for many students, including Kirchner, majoring in both painting and English. “You’d think at any art school you’d learn how to draw,” she says, “but at BU it’s really enforced. Maybe that means you have to put off your personal vision for a while, but when you return you’re strengthened by all of these techniques that you’ve learned.”

The rewards are not limited to the students. Finding a balance between teaching and creating art can be challenging for many faculty members, most of whom are active sculptors, painters, and designers. But working in a setting with numerous opportunities to exhibit at BU’s four galleries and to collaborate with other artists — both established and emerging — is often inspirational.

“I’m very stimulated being around wonderful young artists,” says Simpson. “We have an absolutely superb MFA painting program, and our undergraduates are exciting as well. Since I’m a painter myself, I seem to be energized by them.”

The school of theatre arts is the youngest of the three main programs that make up CFA, but it has claimed a place among preeminent theatrical training institutions since the drama department began in 1950 at what is now the College of Communication. A history of collaboration with other programs at CFA, a close relationship with one of Boston’s biggest theater companies, and a faculty of working actors, directors, and designers have helped the school link the educational and professional spheres.

“I’m a great believer that when you separate theater training ground from the professional theater, they don’t feed each other too well,” says Jim Petosa, school of theatre arts director. “But when you connect them, the training labs can become very potent laboratories for the profession.”

The relationship emerges through faculty like Petosa himself, who is the artistic director of the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland, and the Boston University Professional Theatre Initiative, which includes affiliations with the Huntington Theatre Company, the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, the National Players Touring Company, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Students in both the performance and the production majors are able to work with these repertory companies, and faculty can frequently explore new plays or performance techniques before bringing the work to the professional stage.

Petosa offers as an example a production of Peter Brook’s Carmen, an adaptation of the classic Bizet opera. It began as a workshop piece, then was staged at BU as part of the Opera Institute’s annual Fringe Festival in the fall of 2003. Several months later, the BU troupe traveled to Maryland to perform the piece in a six-day run at the Olney Theatre Center. Based on the response, Petosa plans to stage it at the Olney again this summer, where it will appear as a part of the Potomac Theatre Festival.

Abundant opportunities for performance, however, have not replaced classical training and technique as the school’s priority. Fields of study range from voice and diction to the Alexander technique for movement, and students are expected to take an active role in designing their professional and liberal arts educational programs. “Their human needs and their artistic needs are approached at the same time,” Petosa explains.

In addition, faculty members cite the collegial atmosphere as a strong advantage contributing to both the breadth of students’ education and the professional development of the teaching staff. “The quality of the faculty’s engagement with the artistic growth of students is extraordinary,” says Professor Sidney Friedman. “There are places where the faculty come and teach their class and then descend to the subway steps. Here, it’s a collaborative sport, and you play tennis better when you’re playing with someone who’s very good.”

The 50th anniversary celebration began early last fall and continues for the rest of this year with exhibitions, concerts, and performances. David Aronson, a school of visual arts professor emeritus, opens a retrospective at the Boston University Art Gallery on February 4, and historical photographs, posters, and catalogues are featured in an exhibition at the Commonwealth Gallery called Five Decades of the Boston University Art Gallery, opening the same week. The school of music and the school of theatre arts will perform The Rape of Lucretia later this month, and the school of theatre arts is scheduled to finish the year with the play The Laramie Project. In April, the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus will perform Verdi and Stravinsky at Boston’s Symphony Hall, under the direction of Hoose and Ann Howard Jones, a CFA professor and the school of music director of choral activities.

Leaders at CFA, however, are more focused on future plans than present festivities. To keep pace with the competition, CFA is launching a major development campaign to improve the college’s resources and facilities. The goals, Meissner says, include enhancing financial aid packages to help recruit the best young artists and providing more support and sponsorship for residency groups such as the Boston Baroque, the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, and the Huntington Theatre Company.

Having reached one milestone with a reputation for intellectual collaboration and artistic passion, Meissner and the college’s directors are working to ensure that CFA remains a leading fine arts institution when it reaches the next. “We’re in the right city, in the right community, affiliated with a major, internationally known university,” says Meissner. “We can aspire to be the best in the world. And we do.”