Humanities Today — Universities Invest in Art


Two fascinating articles in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of the NYT about massive investments invested by elite U.S. universities in creating quality museum space on campus. Campuses include Harvard, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, and Yale with costs that run into the hundreds of millions for building sites designed by starchitects like Renzo Piano and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro. You can read the articles here and here.

Heavily dependent on philanthropic donors with deep pockets and big egos, these massive investments highlight a shared vision advanced by university administrators designed to stitch art and the arts into the larger life of the university, and the university into civil society. Stanford now requires undergraduates to take courses in “creative expression,” things like “Aesthetics of Data,” “Visual Thinking,” and “Cellphone Photography.”

It’s easy to be cynical, but you might not get the last laugh. There’s lots of money going into this, and not just money, but also serious intellectual attention and energy. As knowledge becomes more and more visual in its basic constitution, and funded as such, professors in the Humanities might want to consider the way in which a more visual sensibility might bring our work into much broader and lively conversations across the university and the culture at large.

This includes especially the two fields in which I work, Jewish Studies and the study of Religion, both of which stand out as relatively queer and isolated pockets in the university universe, and yet, for all that, or because of that, deeply interdisciplinary. The bet is that art and the arts are the connective tissue that tease varied and contested things and the people who care about them together into a single body-fabric.

A museum is a good place to go, a good place to be, a good “thing” for a university to “have.” But they cost lots and lots of money.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to Humanities Today — Universities Invest in Art

  1. Michael says:

    Sounds like another sign of elitistic detachment from the outside world. Pouring millions into expensive exhibition space is “stitching the university into civil society”? I’d say spending those sums on scholarships, or lowering tuition fees, or sending students to teach at highschools would do a better job.

    • zjb says:

      Civil society here is shorthand for private money. But the point is that the arts do a better job communicating with broader segments of society than do text based forms of knowledge. The arts are in that sense “popular.” They draw people (and donor money) from outside into the university, and they create new opportunities for people inside the university to talk with each other, as well as with non-academics. Re: tuition, I don’t know the precise details about tuition structure at the elite schools although I’m pretty sure they are pretty generous with low income students. I once heard they cap it at 15% of family income. The dirty secret of academe is that only 1/3 of students pay full tuition. And I know that there are opportunities for students to work with high school students as tutors and mentors. For elite institutions with billion dollar endowments, the money for that is probably considered chump change.

      • Michael says:

        Exactly – elitism at its best. This illustrates the problem – for some such sums are “chump change” and others can’t get the ends meet. Its a bit like space tourism. Great that some can afford it, but is it really what we as a society should be spending our money and effort on?

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