Stanford Arts Institute fellows examine the role of art in cities

A new one-year arts fellowship program at Stanford signals a shift in focus for the institute to research and teaching. The subject of Creative Cities will be explored from multidisciplinary angles.

Beijing, Mexico City and Mumbai are cities whose recent histories have notably been reconsidered, and are being rebuilt with art as a central lens.

According to two new Stanford Arts Institute (SAI) fellows, Detroit and New Orleans belong on that list of cities as well. The scholars will be researching the role that arts are playing in the reimagining of these cities next academic year under the theme Creative Cities, and sharing their findings with the Stanford community.

Under the leadership of Peggy Phelan, the Denning Family Director of the Stanford Arts Institute, and working closely this year with the Stanford Program on Urban Studies, the fellows are expected to reach across disciplines and artistic media in this new fellows program.

The first fellows are Andrew Herscher, associate professor at the University of Michigan with appointments in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Department of the History of Art, and Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures; and Johanna Taylor, independent scholar and arts practitioner. They arrive on campus in the fall.

This new fellows program aims to foster stronger alliances among the arts-related departments and non-arts disciplines and departments across campus through interdisciplinary research around a theme. This year’s theme, Creative Cities, covers cities generally, including in the Bay Area. The fellows will teach one undergraduate course during the academic year and will contribute to university-wide seminars and public discussions. They will also produce a tangible contribution to the Creative Cities theme that advances this area of research.

The fellows program supports the sharpened mission of the arts institute that now focuses more on interdisciplinary arts research and teaching, while the ongoing administration of arts grants, extracurricular programs and campus-wide planning efforts are managed more centrally in the Office of the Associate Dean for the Advancement of the Arts.

Phelan sees the fellows program as a way to move the arts institute beyond the four core art departments and programs that have been the focus of much of the work of the institute to date.

“While the institute has had a transformative impact on the space and practices of art at Stanford, art as a mode of thinking extends significantly beyond creative practice and technical skills,” she said.

Human Cities Initiative

The Stanford Program on Urban Studies launched the Human Cities Initiative in December 2015 to promote urban development that prioritizes the quality of life for city inhabitants. Noting the many parallels with the Creative Cities theme, Phelan said she is delighted to have an opportunity to collaborate with the program this year.

“The future of art, like the future of the university, will be multi-modal. Cities are vivid stages for the dramatization of poly-disciplinary thinking, moving, being,” she said.

Michael Kahan, the acting director of the Program on Urban Studies, will lead a year-long working group devoted to sharing current research and artistic practice connected to the theme of Creative Cities that will include the two arts institute fellows, interested faculty, graduate students and local professionals with expertise in art and urban spaces.

“This collaboration with the Stanford Arts Institute is a tremendous opportunity for the Human Cities Initiative, and for the Program on Urban Studies,” Kahan said.

He added, “Cities have been hubs of creative expression and innovation for millennia. At the same time, the arts have helped us to understand and confront some of our most challenging urban problems. The working group will allow us to explore the current state of this relationship from multiple angles.”

Kahan said the work of the two fellows will set the tone for what he expects will be a “very timely and important conversation” about cities and creativity.

Research at Stanford

Andrew Herscher has published two books on architecture, art, and spatial politics: Violence Taking Place: The Architecture of the Kosovo Conflict (Stanford University Press, 2010) and The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit (University of Michigan Press, 2012).

In current research, he is investigating urban blight and spatial racism in the American city, the spatial politics of global humanitarianism, and the politics of “social practice” in art and architecture. He proposes to use his time at Stanford to complete Creative Class Conflict, a book exploring the role of art in both the neoliberal restructuring of post-bankruptcy Detroit and activist resistance to that so-called renewal. He will also teach a course called How to Be Governed Otherwise: Art, Activism, and the City; this course will study art’s intersection with movement-based work for political change and the university’s relation to sites of ongoing political struggle more generally.

Johanna Taylor earned a doctorate in public and urban policy at The New School in New York in 2016. Through case studies of neighborhoods in New Orleans and New York, her dissertation explored the unique role of art in creating new avenues for cooperation and political action.

At Stanford, she will continue her research on New Orleans, a hub for cooperative art projects that combat exclusionary divides towards equitable opportunities in the creative city. She will also teach a class called Activating Urban Spaces, which will consider how aesthetic and design solutions address urban challenges through case studies and site visits across the Bay Area.

“I believe that art is a catalyzing force in advancing justice, and that creative, interdisciplinary spaces such as the Stanford Arts Institute are vital to generating scholarly interventions,” Taylor said.

With the launch of the Human Cities Initiative, Kahan said, the Program on Urban Studies is fostering teaching, research and collaboration to support a human-centered vision of urbanism.

“We have to build cities that are sustainable in the broadest possible sense, ecologically, economically, socially and culturally,” he said. “The course offerings by the Arts Institute fellows will provide our students with critical tools to create livable, vibrant and equitable cities.”