At Stanford in Washington, arts are inside and outside the classroom

SIW’s public exhibition grapples with issues of politics and the press, and students consider memorials, the American flag and censorship in the arts.

Questions about the role of the press and social media, history and memory, ideological past and future are all rich subjects to explore in a classroom in the nation’s capital. They are also the questions that artist Xiaoze Xie, the Paul L. and Phyllis Wattis Professor of Art at Stanford, poses in his public exhibition Confrontation and Disruption, on view at the Art Gallery at Stanford in Washington through March 31, 2018.

Visitors view the exhibition Xiaoze Xie: Confrontation and Disruption on view at the Art Gallery in Stanford in Washington’s Sant Building.

Visitors view the exhibition Xiaoze Xie: Confrontation and Disruption on view at the Art Gallery in Stanford in Washington’s Sant Building. (Image credit: Micaela Suminski)

The exhibition is a key part of the innovative interdisciplinary arts program that is an integral piece of the experience for students at Stanford in Washington (SIW), a fully immersive residential program for juniors and seniors that includes internships, academics and cultural events. The arts program provides students with a framework for understanding historical trends and contemporary issues they encounter both within and beyond their Washington classrooms, known as the Bass Center.

Throughout the fall quarter, the 24 SIW students have experienced the ways in which various art forms reflect and document social upheaval, including participating in a conversation with playwright Karen Zacarias, ’91, and actors after seeing her play Native Gardens about gentrification; listening to jazz performed by leading young artists; and viewing Xie’s painting of the front page of a newspaper featuring a photo of struggling refugees.

“From SIW’s inception in 1988, generations of students have benefited from the vision and support of Helen and Peter Bing, ’55, who established and endowed our cultural program, enabling students to attend the Washington National Opera and the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, along with theater and dance performances and field trips to historic sites,” said Adrienne Jamieson, the MaryLou and George Boone Centennial Director of SIW. “In recent years, we have built upon this extraordinary access to Washington’s cultural institutions, enabled by Helen and Peter, to develop educational content, often in partnership with creative leaders from the performing and visual arts. Our jazz and blues program, for example, has provided our students with a sense of the complexities of the African American experience in Washington and beyond and has been adapted for public audiences at the Kennedy Center and the National Portrait Gallery. Exhibitions in the art gallery, such as Xiaoze Xie’s, have frequently gone hand-in-hand with specific coursework, internships and the overall experience of students living and learning together in the Bass Center.”

News, politics and access

This fall, students across offices on Capitol Hill, in federal agencies and think tanks, and in journalism have been coping with the rapid-fire nature of political communication and a constantly shifting policy agenda. Discussing the daily news in the center’s dining room is a breakfast tradition at SIW, setting the stage for what students are likely to encounter at their internships. Seeing how Xie memorializes these same headlines in a large-scale painting encourages students to pause and consider the long-term challenges often discarded with the next news cycle.

Painting by Xiaoze Xie titled December 4, 2012. I.H.T. (International Herald Tribune), 2014.

Painting by Xiaoze Xie titled December 4, 2012. I.H.T. (International Herald Tribune), 2014. (Image credit: Alex Jamison)

Relevance to the D.C. context and to current hot button issues is also a feature of the fall course Art, Business and the Law taught by Nancy J. Troy, the Victoria and Roger Sant Professor in Art at Stanford. In the interdisciplinary course, students learn how, for example, national memorials give voice to a range of often antithetical points of view, how government responses to artists’ treatment of the American flag have sometimes challenged First Amendment protections and how politically motivated attempts at censorship have impacted the visual arts.

Troy is as enthusiastic about these topics as she is about the Washington location that makes them especially vivid. “Washington has many fabulous art museums that don’t charge admission fees, there are hugely important archival resources to support art historical research, and vibrant arts offerings elicit an enthusiastic response from Stanford students who have an opportunity to gain firsthand experience of Washington’s many cultural institutions,” she said.

Looking and listening

The Art Gallery at SIW is one of four university art galleries open to the public and the only one that is not on the main Stanford campus. It occupies the ground floor of the Sant Building, an addition to the original Stanford in Washington Bass Center, and students walk through the exhibition space several times a day on the way to class. The gallery hosts a series of art exhibitions and public lectures each year, often featuring works and talks by Stanford faculty and alumni.

Exhibitions by well-known Washington area artists have also been incorporated into the gallery’s schedule, and the artists and curators frequently give talks or attend informal dinners with students and faculty. Recently, Eric Denker, senior lecturer at the National Gallery, served as guest curator for an exhibition of the work of renowned Washington painter and teacher Jack Boul in celebration of the artist’s 90th birthday. Over 160 works from museum and private collections were on display and several public lectures and panel discussions were delivered by artists and the curator. Washington area schoolchildren have participated in the gallery’s educational programs, including exhibitions of work by beloved children’s author and artist Eric Carle and Bart Walter’s bronze cast sculptures of African wildlife.

“Newspapers, often skimmed in a hurry, discarded once consumed, may not immediately strike viewers as art, which is savored slowly, revisited time after time. But Xie transforms news into poetry as he blurs the lines between painter, writer, commentator and critic. … As the United States questions its ideological past and future, Stanford in Washington exhibits Xiaoze Xie’s works at a formative time and fitting place in the nation’s capital.”

—Micaela Suminski, ’17 (SIW fall ’15)

SIW Program Coordinator
Confrontation and Disruption catalog

Along with the visual arts, SIW weaves together music across time periods to highlight some of the similarities among diverse political and social movements. Playwright and SIW teaching artist Tom Minter created Blues for a Royal Flush in 2014, a play with music that captures the personal struggles, societal constraints and political challenges that African American artists faced in segregated Washington during the first half of the 20th century. Blues has been performed in part or in whole for multiple groups of SIW students six times since the original production, sometimes with a broader audience at the Kennedy Center or the National Portrait Gallery and often at the Bass Center.

Most recently, Minter adopted a similar approach to orchestrate a jazz brunch at SIW for students and alumni titled “From U Street to Copasetic,” performed by some of Washington’s most impressive jazz artists. The jazz brunch was in conjunction with a Stanford evening at the National Museum of African American History and Culture where students and alumni toured Washington’s celebrated new Smithsonian museum.

Through SIW’s partnership with Opera Lafayette, the fall students learned that the music of over 400 years ago could also be improvisational, emotional and reflective of changing notions of class and personal expression. Conductor and Artistic Director Ryan Brown organized a performance and conversation around the work of Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi with a group of young vocalists and musicians from the U.S. and Europe who were in rehearsal for a production at the Kennedy Center. As lutenist Thomas Dunford seamlessly transitioned from a 16th-century love song to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” students remarked at the surprisingly “modern” style and sound they recognized in Monteverdi. And indeed, as students learned from Brown and the other artists, Monteverdi’s love songs were among the early works by a composer who performed in public for people who were not part of a royal court, and improvisation was a key aspect of their appeal.

Jamieson considers this “captive audience” at the Bass Center to be one of the keys to the success of the SIW arts program. Students can not only experience and learn about the music, but also ask questions of the performers in an intimate setting. As Stanford alumnus and current JD candidate at Columbia Law School Mitchell Hokanson, ’16 (SIW spring ’15) said, “At Stanford in Washington, we not only go to the opera – the opera comes to us.”

In Jamieson’s words, “Along with their internships and classes the arts program enables students to envision how people have chronicled, considered and coped with societal change over time. And in the process, students often develop an appreciation for the unexpected from the melding of voice and lute at the Bass Center to a dramatic aria on the grand stage of the Kennedy Center. We trust that these students, our future leaders, will create an enduring space for the arts in their lives.”