Exposure to arts central to undergraduate experience

Chancellor's Corner

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Rachael Garner/File

In Bay Area technology circles, the story is well-known: At Reed College in the early 1970s, Steve Jobs dropped in on a class in calligraphy that he later said was the most important academic experience he ever had. The course enabled him to see the value of clarity, elegance and simplicity in design — principles that he put into practice as he built his company, Apple, into a consumer technology powerhouse.

(I might add, of course, that UC Berkeley’s Steve Wozniak — who co-founded Apple and designed its first computers alongside Jobs — helped out more than a little bit.)

Academic study and practice in arts and design fields can have an incredible impact on our work, as the above anecdote illustrates, as well as in our lives. These disciplines encourage creativity and imagination, expose people to new ideas, bring different cultures and viewpoints into dialogue, provide opportunities for performance and self-expression and much more.

They are also important — and this, in my view, is of greatest significance — because they let us tap into and explore what it means to be human. The arts express and examine the joys and the sorrows, the beauty and yet, also the tragedies that are part of the world in which we live and the role we humans play within it. Where would our society be without the aesthetic dimension of life centering on form, image, language, movement, narrative and expression? Without art, we would cease to be human.

When I asked professor of rhetoric and theater, dance and performance studies Shannon Jackson to become UC Berkeley’s first associate vice chancellor for arts and design this past April, I acted on my strongly held belief that exposure to the arts should be a central component of a UC Berkeley undergraduate education and that the arts constitute a key part of our public mission. All of our students can benefit from what creative disciplines offer, and the arts can serve as an important point of connection and engagement between our campus and the surrounding community (in the case of the new Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive building, which will open in January on the west edge of campus on Oxford Street, the connection is a literal one).

In the last five months since her appointment, Jackson has been assiduous in her work toward these goals. She is developing systems to coordinate UC Berkeley’s various arts-related endeavors, beginning to rehabilitate Dwinelle Annex to serve as a base of operations and exhibition space, initiating the creation of a campus “culture pass” that will facilitate and subsidize student access to arts events on and off campus and more.

One program that she recently discussed with me, which will be a sort of microcosm for how we approach the arts at UC Berkeley, is a spring 2016 Big Ideas course called Thinking Across the Arts and Design at Berkeley: The Architecture of Life.

Inspired by the similarly named opening exhibition at the new BAMPFA, the class, an interdisciplinary course taught by Jackson and associate professor of architecture and urban design Nicholas de Monchaux, will focus on conceptions of the terms “architecture” and “life,” and will ask students to go beyond individual artistic and design areas to connect the arts to other disciplines and their broader lives. The class will feature talks from a diverse group of lecturers spanning the arts, academia and industry: Berkeley faculty including associate professor of music history Nicholas Mathew and associate professor of dance Lisa Wymore, artists such as sculptor Bruce Beasley and choreographer Trajal Harrell, architect Charles Renfro, curators such as the BAMPFA’s Larry Rinder and Hearst Museum’s Adam Nilsen and many others.

Capitalizing on our university’s deep strength in the arts, the class will be held in the new BAMPFA and will involve collaborations with several other arts organizations on campus, such as Cal Performances and the Berkeley Dance Project.

Public engagement will also be embedded in the course. Beyond bringing in external speakers to bridge ties between the campus and surrounding area, the class will be open to the Berkeley general public at no charge every Wednesday.

I am excited to see this course in action, as its blend of interdisciplinary learning, interplay between campus arts organizations and public focus are all pillars of what our burgeoning arts and design initiative will become.

No doubt UC Berkeley is already a fixture of the Bay Area’s arts community and central to the region’s creative economy. We provide access to a wide breadth of concerts and shows — mounted by our signature performing arts organization, Cal Performances — ranging from Yo-Yo Ma at the Greek Theatre to Alvin Ailey in Zellerbach. Each year, our excellent arts departments involve hundreds of students across campus in all manner of forms of artistic expression. Our new Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation opened this fall to acclaim, not just in the College of Engineering and on campus, but across the region.

And yet, there is exciting stuff in the works. It will be thrilling to see where we can go by further embedding arts and design in the life of our community, maintaining fundamental commitments we have as a campus to realizing our human potential and doing so in constant engagement with the pervasive mission we have to advancing the public good.

Chancellor’s Corner is a monthly opinion column written by UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

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