Harry Elam promises to make arts 'inescapable'

As the new vice provost for undergraduate education, Harry Elam said he hopes to make his office "a partner and clearinghouse in the arts."

L.A. Cicero Harry Elam

At a talk sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam outlined some ideas for furthering the arts at Stanford.

In a university renowned for its technological savvy and its whiz kids, how do you build a reputation in the arts? 

Harry Elam, who was named the new vice provost for undergraduate education last June, outlined an ambitious plan to make the arts "inescapable in the life of students and anyone coming to campus" at a noon talk Monday sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts.  

With construction under way for the Bing Concert Hall, and with planning going forward for the Deedee and Burt McMurtry Building to house the Department of Art and Art History – both buildings anchoring a visionary plan for an arts district on central campus – the future would seem assured. But how do you "make some headway into the fuzzy-techie divide, where the techie is thought of much more highly than the fuzzy?" Elam asked, later adding that he would like to see both terms disappear altogether.

"How do we encourage both? How do we make space for both to happen?"

Elam acknowledged student frustration, exemplified by a plea from a student to make the arts so irresistible that even the most cloistered electrical engineering student would want to be involved, and that artists would be featured on the front page of the Stanford Daily, rather than sports and engineering heroes.  

Speaking of the need for global citizenship, Elam said, "Nothing in my mind is more important to that than the arts . . . Nothing can make the world better or solve more problems than the arts."

At Stanford, Elam said he hopes to make his office "a partner and clearinghouse in the arts."

His drawing board of ideas, in various stages of planning, includes:

  • The Arts Access project would give students discounted access to other arts (for example, museums and theaters) in the Bay Area.
  • The Arts Circle and Humanities Circle will provide "a cross-disciplinary lab of sorts" for honors thesis students in the humanities, giving them exposure to different areas of the arts. The Humanities Circle already has nine students.  The arts departments are nominating students for the Arts Circle, to begin in January.
  • Stanford Challenge and arts seminars will link the Challenge's four initiatives to the arts, encouraging collaborative team teaching and cross-disciplinary seminars – for example, linking the arts and education, arts and the environment.
  • With artist in residence seminars and overseas seminars, Elam hopes to encourage programs akin to last year's exuberant cultural exchange with Uganda. 

Elam recalled joining the faculty 20 years ago, also during a nationwide economic crunch.  The proposed budget cuts included a plan to axe the drama department.  After all, the reasoning went, neither Oxford nor Harvard had drama departments.  Why must Stanford have one?

"It galvanized us," said Elam.  "Stanford is different.  Why do we have to be like Oxford or Harvard?"

Stanford now ranks second among the nation's PhD programs in theater and performance studies according to the United States National Research Council rankings, which many consider the premier ranking of doctorate programs.

The planned new facilities and proposed arts district cannot come too soon: Elam discussed the recent red-tagging of the Roble theater, the site of last year's production of "Rent," one of the most popular shows in the department's history.  Although it's a historic building, it's "no place you want to be" in its current condition.  Without major renovations soon, he said, the entire building "will be gutted, and that will be $20 million of work."

But excellence does not depend on buildings alone, said Burt McMurtry, a major donor for the planned arts building. "We are not defined by our facilities," he said. "What matters is the quality of people that you have, how much fun you can have with as little resources as we have. We’re going to surprise people."

Said Elam, "One reason I'm really excited about the future is because this is Stanford – a place where the impossible has been made possible since its founding.  Eventually we're going to see that arts district.  And it will be in my lifetime."

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu