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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

School of the Arts now taking shape

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 33 - June 13, 1996

In a Virginia Tech course called "Creativity and Aesthetic Experience," students may listen to a composer or a playwright discuss his or her musical composition or a play, then attend a performance of it, and then meet with the musicians or performers to discuss the creative process involved. The course is so popular it has to be closed after 580 students are enrolled in it.

That's the type of collaborative, interdisciplinary educational experience professors hope to offer more often now that the new School of the Arts has been established in the College of Arts and Sciences. The school is a rare entity: a school of the arts housed within a college within a university.

"It's a prototype of other efforts in restructuring to facilitate a more integrated academic experience, since students will participate from all areas in the university," said Robert C. Bates, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors approved the formation of the new school during its April meeting. The initiative toward such a school began as early as 1969 with a proposal to establish a separate School of Fine Arts and Communications, was revived in 1978 when the arts and communications areas at Virginia Tech were growing rapidly, and was brought up again in 1988 with the notion of keeping the unit within the college.

"It's important to note the tremendous work of (Dean) Bob Bates and (Provost) Peggy Meszaros and the support of (President) Paul Torgersen in shepherding this proposal through the Board of Visitors," said P.A. "Tony" Distler, director of the new school and alumni distinguished professor.

"After their long-term efforts, it's particularly pleasing to have Tony Distler and the new school's department heads see their dream realized," Bates said.

Many universities have schools or colleges of the arts, but most of them are free-standing units. At Virginia Tech, the School of the Arts will function as a distinct entity within the College of Arts and Sciences, thereby preserving the benefits that come from being part of a large unit--such as instructional funding, student-scholarship funding and other support. The school will be composed of three visual- and performing-arts departments whose missions and methods set them apart somewhat from the rest of the departments in the college, but whose links to other departments as diverse as sociology and physics make remaining in Arts and Sciences advantageous.

The Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Music, and the Department of Theatre Arts will make up the school. The departments currently reside in the college, with art as a free-standing department and music and theatre as departments within the Division of Performing Arts. The new school will require no additional university funds, since its budget will be the combined budgets of the three departments and the Division of Performing Arts, plus box-office ticket sales. The new organizational structure will even save money through consolidation and rearrangement of staff responsibilities.

A primary goal of housing all three departments in a school of the arts is to provide students and the community with enhanced, enriched, and expanded programs through the sharing of expertise.

For example, the new school will allow the faculty to improve the curricula of the visual and performing arts through such efforts as eliminating overlapping courses, creating unique interdisciplinary courses and opportunities such as the aforementioned "Creativity and Aesthetic Experience," and integrating art and art history into the MFA in Arts Administration program.

The new school also will provide a vehicle for a variety of new initiatives and ventures among the three departments in addition to cross-disciplinary courses. Among these are such things as "performance-arts" presentations using the talents from all three departments and an Arts at Virginia Tech Week each semester.

It will also allow for sharing new technologies, important in an age of technological revolution in teaching, an age of online classes and multimedia presentations. "We hope to reach a new plateau of technological innovations building on existing expertise in the departments," Distler said.

For example, more than 50 percent of the courses in art, music, and theatre now integrate new digital technologies, and the new school could provide a center for all production aspects of digital, video, or live transmission of instruction efforts via cyberspace, satellite, or other "non-live" teaching methodologies. Plans also are to establish a Digital Arts Library bringing together on the Ethernet the visual, audio, and audiovisual artifacts now housed in each department, making them accessible to students, other departments, and the community.

"As the faculty and staff begin to interact in the new School of the Arts," Distler said, "it is a virtual certainty that these creative artists will develop new ways in which their visual and audio talents can benefit the new technological teaching initiatives throughout the rest of the university--something that would not be possible were they to remain as separate units."

"This kind of cooperation and collaborative use of our technological expertise allows us to bring something unique to the program here, something not found at other universities," Bates said.

Other benefits of the new school include more efficient operation of arts scholarship programs, a central School of the Arts management office to support public-performance and gallery exhibition efforts of the departments, a School of the Arts curriculum committee to achieve the special and unique academic needs of the three departments and ensure adequate courses to satisfy core-curriculum requirements, a better base for securing significant external funding for the arts, and an increase in service to the public through expanded consultancies to not-for-profit arts agencies and organizations concerned with the visual and performing arts, as well as governmental agencies and businesses.

Having a School of the Arts will also promote the recognition and importance of the arts by positioning them more solidly and centrally within the university, Distler said.