Forging New Space for the Arts

We’re trying to break the paradigm of these different, separate pursuits, ways of making art, and make a new place that encourages a complete dissolution of these boundaries.
—architect Billie Tsien

Cropping up spontaneously all over, like blades of spring grass, art is happening in every cranny and corner of the University. For example, tucked in a corner of the Reynolds Club, Heidi Coleman teaches classes in a little gem of a performance space that’s actually the landing of a stairwell.

“It’s one of my favorite places to teach,” says Coleman, Director of University Theater. “It doubles as a design studio. It has a lighting system and a sound system, and we’ve put in a floor and mezzanine. It’s a fantastic space. You can seat twenty-five people there.”

This little design/performance space says a great deal about the arts at the University of Chicago: the creative energy on campus is so prodigious that art finds a place to happen, whether it’s a stairwell with a makeshift theater or a single practice room packed elbow to elbow with an entire a cappella singing group. And the end result is apparent: on any given day or evening, the campus hosts a multitude of student or professional performances, recitals, exhibits, and readings—from comedy improv by Off-Off Campus to a screening by Fire Escape Films—in addition to the plays and exhibits at professional venues on campus, such as Court Theatre and the Smart Museum of Art.

Now, a beautiful new arts center, slated to open in 2011, promises to become the heart and hub for this ubiquitous creativity, which will continue to thrive throughout campus, as well as a destination for art-loving Chicagoans and visitors. An anchor for a newly enlivened south campus, the Reva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts will provide a home base for the visual arts, theater and performance, music, and cinema and media studies. The state-of-the-art facility will be devoted to classrooms, studios, practice rooms, theaters and performance space, exhibition space, a film screening hall, a film vault—and more. Thanks to leadership gifts from Reva Logan, EX’43, and David Logan, AB’39, JD’41, and their family, as well as other donors, the University has reached 40 percent of its $100-million goal to complete the facility.

Creating a central home for many disciplines, the David Logan Arts Center will be a physical manifestation of a series of convergences that happen on campus—convergences not only of discipline and discipline, but also of theory and practice, of University and community, and of scholarly and professional. For example, in autumn 2006 the Middle East Music Ensemble collaborated in a concert with Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Third-year undergraduate Alyssa Mathias, a member of the University ensemble, recalls it as a thrilling experience that will always stay with her. A busy performer, Alyssa has also joined the University Symphony Orchestra, the forty-five-voice Motet Choir, and the New Music Ensemble. “There are just so many fantastic arts opportunities here,” she says. And the opportunities are not just plentiful but also of world-class quality: Chicago’s music program was ranked first in teaching and second for faculty quality by the National Research Council, the nation’s most highly regarded assessment of doctoral programs.

The idea for the David Logan Arts Center has been gestating since the release of a 2001 report by faculty and arts professionals on the state of the arts at the University. The report found that art production was dispersed across campus and that a new space could help nurture a sense of artistic community. “We do over thirty-five productions a year,” says University Theater’s Coleman. “There is such a hunger and a demand to produce work.”

A group of faculty, administrators, students, and consultants convened to study programming needs and draft a plan. Committee meetings turned out to be anything but dreary administrative exercises. “It was very, very exciting,” says Larry Norman, Associate Professor in Romance Languages & Literatures, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, and the College, who has taken on the new position of Deputy Provost for the Arts. “There were so many collaborations going on, so much synergy and cross-fertilization between the arts departments and between scholars and artists. Just bringing everyone to the table to talk about the building led to even more creative collaborations.”

David Levin, Associate Professor in Germanic Studies, Cinema & Media Studies, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities (Theater & Performance Studies), and the College—is a living example of the fruitful interplay of disciplines that is so distinctive at Chicago. (He also melds the professional with the scholarly in his work as a dramaturg, most recently for the San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.) “Chicago is just a hotbed of interdisciplinary exchange,” he says. He describes teaching a graduate seminar in opera that was comprised of students from eight different fields. “Of course, interdisciplinarity means that the conversations are much less predictable than if the class were all historians or all musicians or all PhD students in German. But there’s a sense of shared intellectual adventure that has continued to define my experience here. It’s enormously stimulating.”

Plans for the David Logan Arts Center are full speed ahead. An architectural competition last spring yielded a clear winner—Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, world-class architects who understand the University’s imperative to create a space that is truly interdisciplinary. “We’re trying to break the paradigm of these different, separate pursuits, ways of making art,” Tsien explains, “and make a new place that encourages a complete dissolution of these boundaries.”

“I came here because I wanted to be surrounded by people with diverse interests,” says Alyssa Mathias, the busy music student. “We are doing well at mixing intellectual inquiry with artistic practice.” That’s exactly the point of the David Logan Arts Center, says Bill Michel, Assistant Vice-President for Student Life and Associate Dean of the College—to serve the entire University community.

“It will be a wonderful way to bring together curricular and co-curricular work,” says Michel. “The center will combine theory and practice with the creativity and intellectual passion of our students and faculty. All our students will be touched by the creation and the enjoyment of art there.”