Princeton Arts Week Banner

A tiny, one-sided, square banner dangled listlessly over McCosh Walk, trumpeting uselessly that Princeton Arts Weekend runs from October 10th through 12th. The banner had no further details, but the message was clear: to Princeton University, it is more important to say that arts are practiced on this campus than to provide support to the student-artists themselves.

Both the banner and weekend are paying lip-service to the growing importance of the arts at Princeton. Last year, the University began construction of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood, a project that will finally grant dedicated facilities to its programs in dance, theater, and visual arts. The University lacks an arts school, but its programs have grown in the past decade, thanks in part to the late Peter B. Lewis ’55, whose $101 million gift was used to establish the Lewis Center for the Arts in 2008.

One of the most striking developments in the Lewis Center is in its Program in Visual Arts, which began offering graphic design classes in 2010 at the direction of Art Professor Joe Scanlan, who was appointed director of the program a year earlier. This semester, the Lewis Center offers five graphic design courses. Lewis Center programming is distinct from a full major, and students wishing to complete a certificate must complete their art independent work—including a full creative thesis—in conjunction with their primary major’s independent work. Students seeking a certificate do not have the luxury of writing shorter theses for their primary department, nor can they fill only half of a gallery for their thesis show. Since the program only offers certificates and not majors, it indicates that artwork comes secondary to other academic work. Princeton’s already extraordinary workload also discourages students from even applying for the program, said Angela Zhou ’16, an ORFE major with a Visual Arts certificate, and students have to seriously consider abandoning their artistic ambitions in the face of tremendous workloads.

The alternative is Program 2, a small and obscure track in the Department of Art and Archaeology that allows students to truly major in visual arts. Majors in the program dedicate their independent work to art, but interest is low and fewer than ten students are enrolled. The Program in Visual Arts sees enormously talented student-artists pass through its classes, said Danielle Aubert, a visiting Lewis Center fellow and graphic designer, but many choose not to enroll in Program 2. Zhou attributes this to a certain stigma of being an artist at a university like Princeton that is both not an art school and offers so many other, and arguably more valuable, academic opportunities.

Princeton’s approach to art instruction, even in a seemingly applied field like graphic design, tends to focus on intellectual understanding rather than practical skill, Aubert said. Classes are oriented around concepts and thinking more about ideas than form. The program’s independent work seminar, a mandatory class for all students seeking a VIS certificate and Program 2 majors, is a largely reading-based class that focuses on art theory, though students produce an art book at the end of the semester.

Simon Wu ’17, a prospective VIS certificate student, said he was taken aback by how abstract and esoteric the graphic design classes were, and students like Zhou found the lack of practical instruction disheartening. The product of intellectual curiosity combined with self-taught technique sometimes results in student work that treats design as a problem-solving task, ignoring aesthetic considerations and divorcing art from design. In a graphic design class last year, one student presented a book that violated nearly every formal rule of graphic design by using nine different typefaces—including the oft-maligned Papyrus and Comic Sans—and no discernible grid.

“There is a lot of basic stuff we’re skipping over,” Aubert admits, and other students characterize visual arts courses as catering to hobbyists and students looking to fulfill distribution requirements.

Wu suspects the Program in Visual Arts seeks to recreate Yale’s graphic design program, which he describes as inaccessible and graphic design for designers, rather than create its own identity. He points to the backgrounds of each graphic design instructor—David Reinfurt, Alice Chung, and visiting fellow Danielle Aubert. Each had either received an MFA from or taught graphic design at Yale’s School of Art. Perhaps more importantly, each instructor did not major in art or design as an undergraduate. Reinfurt has an unspecified Bachelors of Arts, Aubert majored in English Literature, and Chung majored in biology and has a masters in health & social behavior.

Both the method of instruction and the lecturers’ backgrounds distinguish Princeton’s program from that of a trade school. They also reveal that the University’s underpinnings as a liberal arts institution, where priorities lie less in practical instruction and more in teaching a wide breadth of ways of knowing, carry over to arts instruction. The arts, then, ultimately exist as a supplement to the Princeton education, a sentiment explicitly articulated in the Undergraduate Announcement, which defines the visual arts program as an exploration “in connection with a general program of humanistic education.”

Courtesy of Princeton University. This 2009 model shows the proposed arts complex on the left and Forbes College on the right looking south down Alexander Street.
Courtesy of Princeton University. This 2009 model shows the proposed arts complex on the left and Forbes College on the right looking south down Alexander Street.

This idea can be traced back to the President’s Report on the Creative & Performing Arts at Princeton, a 2006 report by President Emeritus Shirley Tilghman that located the arts within the University’s mission and outlined plans for arts facilities and programs.

“For the most part [prospective] students do not aspire to become professional artists, but they seek a university where they can integrate their academic pursuits with artistic passions,” Tilghman wrote. “To compete successfully for these students in the future, Princeton needs to create a higher profile for the arts on campus.”

Here, Tilghman makes clear that Princeton is not out to become a trade school, a guiding point in the Lewis Center’s instructional philosophy. It also lends credence to cynical students who claim that Princeton’s effort to improve the arts is really an effort to improve its yield: this lip service attracts students to campus while relegating arts to a secondary priority.

That is not to say that there is no value to Princeton’s liberal arts approach to the arts. Aubert says that it arms students with more ways of understanding and more flexibility than the art school graduates she taught in Detroit. Since the program is so small, neither tracks nor set curricula exist, so instructors are free to teach to their interests, which she suggests results in more engaged students and instructors alike.

But for students like Katie Rose ’15 and Gabrielle Chen ’14, who dream of being professional artists, this approach to visual arts is radically unhelpful. Both transferred to California Institute for the Arts, where they are currently majoring in animation.

“There’s something a little bit off if you’re valuing analyzing the arts over practicing them, and I think that’s what is happening at Princeton,” Rose said.

In the absence of applied arts instruction, Rose and Chen spent their time at Princeton building curriculums of practical experience, supplementing increasingly unsatisfying academics with extracurricular artistic outlets. Each quickly climbed the ranks of the Student Design Agency, a student-run agency of largely self-taught graphic designers, where they learned the daily intricacies of being professional artists. Rose also singlehandedly resurrected the art department of The Princeton Tiger, a humor magazine that had not featured original artwork in nearly a decade, where she illustrated articles and drew comics (n.b. in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Student Design Agency and the chairman of Tiger). Though graphic design was neither Chen’s nor Rose’s chosen field, both pursued it in student-run extracurriculars, because it was the closest they could get to practical arts instruction at Princeton.

“[T]he art I wanted to do was something I felt like I had to carve out for myself, something that I shouldn’t have been doing because it distracted me from a more worthwhile academic interest,” Rose said. “Why should I stick around and pay tuition to teach myself what I wanted to learn?”

* * *

It was not just the lack of academic support that drove Rose and Chen to transfer, but also Princeton’s lack of a functional arts community.

This is at least in part because Princeton does not offer a graduate program in the arts, which would foster connections among practicing professionals. In its absence, the Lewis Center has resorted to importing professional artists like Aubert and percussionist-composer Jason Treutting on fellowships. Aubert suspects that the fellowships were started to show undergraduate students examples of practicing artists, but like most visual arts instructors, she commutes to work from New York City. If the University’s own arts faculty are not around to participate in campus arts, events are somewhat hollow affairs.

The University made a big push to rally together artists for Princeton Arts Weekend, which ran from October 10th through 12th during Freshman Families Weekend. The weekend sought to specifically engage different communities of artists in interdisciplinary performances—an admirable goal, to be sure—but its stated purpose of “exploring how art influences other disciplines” seems to imply an institutional philosophy that believes the arts cannot stand on their own.

Princeton Arts Weekend was also geared towards performances, which resulted in a calendar of events that largely excluded visual artists, designers, and publications. Of the 46 events listed on the Arts Weekend calendar, just six incorporated visual arts, and this short list includes a throwaway film screening of A Streetcar Named Desire and the Art Museum’s weekly children’s Art Safari.

“We didn’t want the weekend to be what students were already doing,” said Wu, who was also part of the Arts Weekend committee. He added that the intention was to showcase Weekend-specific performances, but to some, it seemed like the University tried to make “art happen” with only a cursory understanding of the process by which it is made.

The University also failed to give adequate promotion to Arts Weekend events. Posters, table triangles, and a tiny banner all frivolously announced the Arts Weekend’s running dates without any substantive details. While the University offered technical support to participants, none of the promotional materials mentioned a calendar of events or even the website where more information could be found. The lone poster mount in Frist was immediately covered by a poster for the Office of International Programs’ Study Abroad Fair, and arts faculty were also kept in the dark—Aubert only became aware of Arts Weekend when I asked her about it during our interview.

Even current students who are largely satisfied with institutional support recognize that an arts community hardly exists at Princeton. Kemy Lin ’15, one of the few Art & Archaeology majors enrolled in Program 2, acknowledged that the University has provided all the financial and space resources that she might need as an artist on campus, even outside of her major. But she said there is a difference between funneling money towards the arts and actually fostering an arts community. Its absence is no doubt a product of the administration’s arts philosophy, but perhaps also student art’s place in the campus culture.

“Art is something that is confined to the private sphere,” said Oliver Marsh ’15, citing collective student outrage at piano players in Frist Campus Center as one example of how student art has been driven out of public space.

One notable exception was The Surface, a series of white panels on which passersby could write or draw anything that was installed on the Frist North Lawn. It was the subject of VIS 439: Art as Interaction and an enormous step for installation artwork at a University that protects its image so rigidly that sidewalk chalk is considered vandalism. Naturally, The Surface faced antagonism from the student body and University administration. In the span of a day, one panel was ripped from its support post and pushed to the ground, and another was taken and repainted by Building Services in response to a complaint about a depiction of penis on it.

The University’s removal of the panel was an insensitive treatment of an art installation that sought to explore free speech and expression, but student reactions also revealed a shocking hostility and a near-willful lack of understanding.

“What a terrible idea. It’s completely unoriginal and looks like sh*t [sic]. We have a beautiful campus and you idiots are contaminating it,” wrote one ‘Prince’ commenter named Whore Turtle. “This is just so hermits can post ‘edgy’ and ‘controversial’ phrases,” another said. Nathan Jones ’14 wrote to the creators saying, “It just seems like people are being immature, rather than actually expressing themselves,” and students like Misha Semenov ’15, a member of the Edwards Arts Collective, questioned if The Surface even qualified as art.

Ultimately, The Surface succeeded in starting a conversation about public art at Princeton, but it revealed an overwhelmingly conservative culture from both students and the University in which art should be carefully curated and beautiful, and not The Surface.

Again, though, The Surface is a rare exception of student art in public space. Public art is such a rare occurrence that one student’s project for a class on graphic design and circulation was mistaken for a death threat, and Public Safety was nearly called.

“When you walk around campus, you see curated, professional art but not student art,” Wu said.

Courtesy of Willem Nabuurs. 185 Nassau Street, home of a number of Lewis Center programs, including the Program in Visual Arts
Courtesy of Willem Nabuurs. 185 Nassau Street, home of a number of Lewis Center programs, including the Program in Visual Arts

Student artwork tends to be exhibited in 185 Nassau Street, a former elementary school on the fringes of campus that houses many of the Lewis Center programs, and is only seen by other artists rather than the student body at-large.

“If you were going to hold a gallery show in December,” Chen said, “you’d better hope that your friends liked you enough to make the trek up long, dark, bitterly cold streets to see it.”

There are a few gallery spaces outside of 185 Nassau Street, but most are fairly obscure. Mathey College’s Café Antoine Student Gallery is tucked into the relatively unknown Hamilton Hall, and a gallery of student photography is relegated to a poorly trafficked upstairs passageway between Wu and Wilcox Halls. The more visible spaces—like the James S. Hall ’34 Memorial Gallery, outside Studio 34—only occasionally feature exhibitions by students, and thefts have deterred students from exhibiting their work. The gallery’s current exhibition is an uninspiring and uncredited retrospective of Butler College, and the walls bear several blank spots where prints have been removed. Artists like Kassandra Leiva ’15 have also had artwork stolen from the Café Antoine Gallery.

Wu aimed to give student art a more public presence on campus when he founded Princeton Public Works last Spring. According to Wu, it is important for students to encounter art in their daily routines and outside of galleries, because art should be in conversation with other aspects of students’ lives; art doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The USG initiative exhibits student art in highly trafficked, public spaces like Frist Campus Center or Campus Club, and it seeks to connect students from different disciplines to help create a community of artists.

But the onus to build a community of student-artists should not fall exclusively on the students. The University has an obligation to help and create institutions that foster interactions between artists, and to be fair, it has been trying.

In 2012, Mathey College established the Edwards Arts Collective, a selective residential community of 35 student-artists who live on the third and fourth floors of Edwards Hall. According to John Michael Colón ‘16, a second-year member of the collective and editor-in-chief of the Nassau Literary Review, the group brings together students with a wide range of artistic interests.

The Edwards Collective is unstructured and there is no formal programming beyond a brief orientation and a twice-per-year retreat, so the drive to engage with each other must come from the collective’s members. Semenov explained that the residential aspect of the community helps facilitate this. He recounted a scene where members happened to stop by a room and ended up painting, drawing, and reading poetry together.

There have also been more formalized collaborations supported with monetary assistance from the Mathey College office, which has a fund set aside for the collective; A.K. Williams ’15 and Ioana Ferariu ’15, who met through the collective, are working on an interactive art piece with funding from the college. Mathey will use Collective funds to renovate the basement of Edwards Hall into a music recording studio. Even so, the collective has used its funding in a largely consumptive nature, said Colón, primarily requesting funds to travel to and attend shows in New York City.

In its fledgling state, the Edwards Collective is the closest Princeton comes to having an arts community, but is obscure and closed. A selective, residential community excludes student-artists who are not members, and it may even move conversations about art away from public spaces and into the niche, private sphere of the arts collective. But the collective does not have a monopoly on campus artists, and members typically invite other student-artists to shows and trips. The fact that it even exists is a testament to the fact that the University is at least attempting to foster arts communities, albeit with mixed success.

* * *

In early October, Zhou took me on a brief tour of the visual arts studio space on the fourth floor of 185 Nassau Street. Paint splotches dot the wooden floors, and the white partitions that divide up the room butt up against one another to form a mass of studios in the center of the space. The studios are one of the few spaces on this campus that are actively shaped by the people who use them—facilities staff does not silently reset them to a default state every morning—and paint-stained artifacts and the messiness serve as a reminder that this is very much a lived-in space. It was empty then, but I could not help but imagine artists filling the studios and covering their walls and hands with charcoal and paint and wireframes, practicing capital-A Art not because of, but in spite of this school.

As we finished our loop around the room and circled back to the elevator, we lingered under the skylight as the car made its way up to us. When the doors opened, I stepped inside alone.

“I’m going to my studio to do some more problem sets,” Zhou said.

The doors closed.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the genesis of graphic design courses in the Lewis Center’s Program in Visual Arts. They were the product of then-newly appointed program director Joe Scanlan, not a direct response to undergraduate pressure. The Nassau Weekly regrets the error.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.