A Year On

It’s been almost a year since I took on the role of Director of the Arts Institute. Although I held senior roles in other universities, UW–Madison’s Arts Institute is one of those rare and unique opportunities which one encounters once in a lifetime. Unlike any other arts units such as a college, school, or department, the Arts Institute embraces the full extent of artistic possibilities as they converge in their widest, most diverse, and complex potentials.

Here I want to reflect on how I continued to develop my vision of the arts in academia by way of being immersed in a community of practitioners that represent a wide array of ambitions, hopes, and achievements that could only be understood and appreciated by directly engaging with them.

More so, as I reflect on my own approach to the arts with this experience as a context, I can appreciate how one person could never survive the overwhelming nature of such a venture without the help of one’s immediate colleagues. If there is one thing I can say for sure, it is that my Arts Institute team has been crucial in helping me fully engage with an exciting yet complex role in a dynamic university that is UW–Madison.

Diversity and complexity

Some might read “complexity” as an unusual term, or perhaps a term that indicates a difficult or challenging situation. However, I regard complexity as a very positive term, as it implies the real nature by which we do things and the actuality of the intellectual, cultural, and artistic spaces that we create and inhabit.

These days we hear a lot about complexity theory, which at face value sounds like a circular argument that goes all the way to reflect upon complexity in a complex way. Philosophers might call this a tautology, though artists would welcome it as another opportunity to reflect on what is, by admission and expectation, something that cannot be resolved unless it finds ways of being expressed through forms and attributes such as color, line, form, volume, and other categories by which the arts communicate and define themselves.

As an educator who comes from the fields of art and philosophy, I tend to have such expectations. When I take up positions that are usually identified with administration, I tend to find ways of engaging with their demands in similar ways by which I am confronted with an empty canvas and the (rather complex) urge to make something of it, as I begin to engage with the tactility of color, line and form.

Here is a snag: When I took up this job I was not confronted by a blank canvas, but a very interesting array of canvases that my arts colleagues wanted to share with me. Around such canvases there have been decades of conversations, and new canvases emerged and continue to do so as the Arts Institute became what it is now: UW–Madison’s division of the arts.

“Futuring” and immersion

I can hear you ask: If the arts are not characterized by inherent diversity, what would they be characterized by?

It is this very question that reminds us of what French philosopher Jacques Rancière says about art: it speaks twice. To me this means that the arts speak many times over and that what they have to say is that in their processes of doing and making, they continuously enter and exit the fray of human existence by their iterative character.

This is what keeps me occupied, both as an academic who makes art, teaches, and writes about it, but also as someone with leadership and administrative roles where I always bear in mind that the arts are an expression of human beings’ constant engagement with possibilities.

These possibilities are what the arts contribute to the core of a university’s promise. If there is ever any need for justification for the arts to be taught in universities, it is neither instrumental nor simply effective. Rather, the crux of the arts’ inherent academic value is that human beings make and do the arts as they seek, through constant experimentation, what is possible.

In a persistent play of hypotheses, the arts seek the error in order to find, iteratively, the myriad possibilities that make up the intricacy of human being and knowledge. Just like the sciences, arts practitioners operate through never-ending forms of testing, understanding, playing, learning, and unlearning what the American educator and philosopher Maxine Greene so fondly called the released imagination by which we can all seek to future (as an action) our present.

Five objectives and five “nodes”

So where does the Arts Institute come in as we speak of possibilities, futuring, and the art’s iterative nature of constant trial and error?

Since I came to UW–Madison, I sought a fuller understanding of what gives distinction to the arts at this university. I knew well that in their individual departments the arts have excelled nationally and internationally, with some departments ranking very high in their specific category. This was no surprise to me, as I knew about the arts at this university way before I ever set foot here.

However, as I came to understand more fully how these departments operate and how the arts as a community of practitioners emerge in their fuller identity in a university with strengths across all disciplines, I also began to understand the role that the Arts Institute has played and the opportunities that it has as a division of the arts.

It is in this spirit that our vision of the Arts Institute has evolved through various discussions at all levels within the university. As we began to find better ways for our structure to address the challenges of the future within the sector, as this is evolving nationally and internationally, we are seeking to fulfill the distinctive role that the university has given us.

This prompted us to identify five main objectives which have always been major catalysts of success for the arts: to innovate, to connect, to open opportunities, to promote diversity, and to sustain democracy. As a division of the arts, the Arts Institute has evolved through five main areas of interest and activity, which I call five “nodes” on which we tie a wider network of operation. These are: arts research, integrated arts, arts enterprise, global arts, and the arts in the community.

As we continue to illustrate in our public domains, including this site as well as published reports and other documents, we continue to meet and develop these areas of artistic activity as we seek to embody the arts’ approach to the Wisconsin idea. To paraphrase UW–Madison’s President Van Hise, who bequeathed us with the Wisconsin Idea, we will never be content until the arts are seen and accepted by all as a “beneficent influence” by which the university “reaches every family in the State.”

While I look forward to more years to come where we sustain the open-ended nature of the arts and their dynamic role in the university, this is what I would sum up as being my major experience throughout this year.