Front Row Center Newsletter from the Greater Columbus Arts Counsil

frc-nov2013By Ellen Milligan

For as long as there have been universities, there has been a challenge to integrate the academic, or “gown,” community with the metropolitan, or “town,” community. Historically, the relationship between the two has even been adversarial: in the medieval cities of Europe, where some of the first Western universities were founded, the wealthy, Latin-speaking students and scholars were often at odds with local residents, politically and socially. While relations between universities and their host communities are usually not so fraught in the modern-day United States, community members, faculty, students and administrators often struggle to bridge the cultural and structural gulf between the university and its host city. As a result, many American cities—from Amherst, Massachusetts to Fayetteville, Arkansas and now Columbus, Ohio—have founded official town and gown committees to solidify these relationships and facilitate collaboration.

Even without an official committee, Columbus already boasts a remarkably well-integrated town and gown community. As the nation’s 15th-largest city and home to its third-largest university, The Ohio State University (OSU), Columbus is nationally known as a major metropolis in its own right and also as an immense college town. It is home to thousands of OSU alumni, and a great number of residents are employed, in one way or another, by the institution of higher learning, medicine, sports, and arts that is Ohio State, causing the lines between “town” and “gown” to become unusually blurred. “Buckeye pride” for OSU athletics permeates not just Columbus but the entire state of Ohio. Nonetheless, the challenge to integrate parts of the at-times-insular collegiate community with the rest of Columbus remains. And what makes the town and gown collaborative efforts in Columbus truly unique is the emphasis on the arts.

The Ohio State University’s Town and Gown Advisory Committee, founded in 2012 by Dean (now Executive Vice President and Provost) Joseph E. Steinmetz, is one of the first in the country to focus expressly on the arts. While many town and gown committees focus on relations in general and pooling of institutional resources, the OSU-Columbus committee was founded for an even more specific and lofty purpose: to enrich and connect the community’s thriving cultural scene. According to a November 2012 article published on OSU’s College of Arts and Sciences web page, Steinmetz introduced the committee at a meeting of the National Council of Arts Administrators. “The committee will serve as a forum for collaboration between arts leaders in the city and at the university on mutually relevant issues and shared opportunities,” said Steinmetz. “It will enhance relationships between the university, City of Columbus, Columbus businesses and arts organizations, and local residents and will seek opportunities for cooperation, partnerships and educational exchanges.”

Although the committee meets just twice a year, the scope of its mission is impressive. The 24 members, who represent all different departments within The Ohio State University in addition to the King Arts Complex, CAPA, Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Columbus Museum of Art, Greater Columbus Arts Council, and many more, are an ambitious and well-connected cadre of Columbus’s arts leaders, ready and excited to collaborate and enliven Columbus’ cultural landscape.

Executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) Nannette Maciejunes serves on the committee and has seen the relationship between OSU and CMA flourish during her career. In one recent and memorable collaboration, Objects of Wonder from the Ohio State University, the university allowed American curator Melissa Wolfe to comb through OSU’s vast collections. Through partnering with the university, the museum was able to bring together and showcase some extraordinary artifacts from OSU, ranging from unpublished Marilyn Monroe photos to John Glenn’s flight manual. “It was a wonderfully exciting partnership for the Museum,” said Maciejunes. “The opportunity to explore the incredible collections entrusted to OSU and then share those treasures with the community was a remarkable experience for us.” But joint efforts between the two organizations have been ongoing for well over a decade; in 1999, the museum presented Spectacular St. Petersburg: 100 Years of Russian Theatre Design in collaboration with theatre professor Joe Brandesky. Other partnerships have been numerous and multifaceted, including a team effort with OSU Libraries to acquire the record books and ledger of internationally renowned artist and Columbus native George Bellows. And, in 2015, the museum will present a special exhibition with Dr. Andrew C. Shelton, professor of art history at OSU and a noted Ingres scholar, that explores Ingres’s lifelong fascination with the Renaissance master Raphael and his love affair with the Baker’s Daughter, or the Fornarina. Ingres’s Passion: Raphael and the Fornarina will be the first comprehensive exhibition to explore this fascinating subject—all made possible through connecting the city and the university. “One of the many benefits of the Town and Gown partnerships is that they allow us to access the great expertise that is found at the University,” says Maciejunes. “They also help to foster these fantastic international connections that benefit the entire Columbus community.”

In fact, thanks to a recent town and gown collaboration, Columbus was able to play host to another internationally noted cultural event: the only North American performance outside New York City of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s critically acclaimed Julius Caesar. This incomparable theatrical production was made possible by The Ohio State University’s unique, ongoing partnership with The Royal Shakespeare Company and facilitated by collaboration with CAPA. Receiving rave reviews, the production, which ran in Columbus for a week in May 2013, drew innovative parallels to Apartheid in South Africa. Featuring an all-black cast, the production was inspired by Nelson Mandela’s love of the play, and emphasized the work’s central themes of conspiracy and political upheaval. Together, OSU and CAPA were able to market and produce the play not just for a run in the Ohio Theatre, but for its premiere in New York City. Without both OSU and CAPA on board, the internationally regarded performance would never have graced Columbus.

Some partnerships are a matter of plugging OSU students and faculty into an existing “town” framework and innovating from there. For Opera Columbus’s upcoming production of Madama Butterfly, OSU students auditioned for the opportunity to be members of the chorus and perform in small roles. The exceptional students who were selected are slated to share the stage with opera professionals later this month when the curtain rises on the Puccini favorite.

“I was sitting in a Madama Butterfly rehearsal with our chorus which is made up of 50 percent OSU students,” says Peggy Kriha Dye, General Manager. “The conductor was treating them as if they were a professional opera chorus, not a student one.  It was so fantastic to see the students rise to the expectations of our guest conductor without hesitation.  The success of our collaboration was tangible!” The upcoming Madama Butterfly will also feature the work of Ohio State graduate students in the Theatre Department, who are gaining valuable experience in costume design, set design and stage management. The same students who will command the Southern Theatre stage later this month will also soon be taking to the classrooms of Columbus area schools as part of Opera Columbus’s “Opera Goes to School” educational tour as part of the multifaceted collaborative agreement between the opera and the university. This success and of this project thus far already has the two organizations discussing future group efforts.

Still other collaborations are truly local and formed through organic, grassroots organizing. Chair of the OSU Department of Dance, noted performer and teacher, and 2013 recipient of GCAC’s Raymond J. Hanley Fellowship Award Susan Van Pelt Petry has seen this to be especially true in the dance world. She has seen OSU dance faculty be active as artistic directors of their own, independent dance companies and witnessed collaborations between OSU dance and BalletMet, but the local dance collaboration she is most excited about is an up-and-coming group called Dance in Columbus. She describes the project as an “informal consortium that we have been part of, along with a diverse group of small, large, independent and educational groups.” The group brings together a variety of dance styles, and while it has met only a few times, this nascent but sincere effort is the kind that feels most important to Petry. “Personally, I really hope to help keep this moving forward as it feels more like something coming from the community and including OSU Dance in a more organic way,” she says.

One of the most organic and important ways of fostering a sense of community between the university and the city at large is engaging college students. Universities are incubators for the next generation of artists, community leaders, and supporters of the arts, and the importance of artistic exposure cannot be overestimated. Ohio State works hard to introduce its students not just to the arts scene on campus, but to the vast array of cultural opportunities throughout the city and region.

Another specific method is through the d-tix program, administered by the Ohio Union Office of Student Life. D-tix offers OSU students free and discounted tickets to Columbus-area events. Standard offerings include discounted restaurant gift cards, movie tickets and laser tag passes – but the arts make a good showing in their box office, too. Free tickets to the Columbus Museum of Art and deep discounts to Shadowbox Cabaret, COSI and the Franklin Park Conservatory are available year round, while this semester’s special listings include discounted admission to BalletMet’s production of Swan Lake and a host of concerts by the Columbus Jazz Orchestra and Columbus Symphony Orchestra.

Additionally, the university facilitates student exploration of the city by enabling free transportation on all COTA buses. A valid student ID provides free access to virtually anywhere in the city. The #2 bus in particular, which runs regularly up and down the main artery of Columbus’s rich academic, artistic, and cultural scene—High Street—allows students free and nearly effortless transit from campus to the Short North and downtown. Come Gallery Hop nights on the first Saturday of every month, the buses are swarmed with undergraduates hungry for art, gourmet food and the unique wares hawked by the Short North’s many independently-owned shops.

In fact, part of Ohio State’s newest university-wide initiative to encourage the arts involves the development of a university “arts district” along High Street, with the express goal of creating a “gateway” between campus and the Short North. The One Ohio State Framework, the university’s overarching institution-wide vision published in 2010, calls for the transformation of the university’s High Street presence into a “cultural corridor.” The “central pulse” of this development will hinge on the historic campus entrance at High Street and 15th Avenue, with the renovation and expansion of multiple buildings including Weigel Hall, home of the music department, and the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Susan Van Pelt Petry views these recent developments as the gratifying results of longtime traditions and collaborations.  “The committee and the ‘district’ are steps towards naming some things that have been going on for a long time, but making it all more conscious, visible and strategic,” she says.  “I think the university has always had strong arts […] but in the past few years there was a happy confluence of certain leadership in the university and in the city that really understood the arts as giving the city (university included) energy, character and progressiveness.” She doesn’t view the university’s traditional focus on its athletics program as handicap to the arts, either. In fact, she says, the two can complement one another. “The arts reflect and express the edges of human experience more often,” she explains. “They deal with countering popular culture often. And so, naturally, the arts are going to be more fugitive, nuanced, complicated and socially active.  So it’s not a competition; it’s diversity.”

And this diversity, and notion of complementing, is the key to community collaborations in Columbus. The worlds of town and gown are not in competition.  It has never been a matter of town or gown, but always a matter of “and,” and how best to combine the efforts of the already-integrated communities. The mutual desire for artistic collaboration has always been present, and the recent founding of the Town and Gown Committee has only strengthened the drive of already-willing artistic leaders to join forces. City leadership is increasingly on board, and the arts are truly flourishing. “Having been part of this community since the early ’80s when the Short North was just beginning, it is very gratifying to see city leadership finally understand the power of large, small, and independent arts and the design industry,” says Susan Van Pelt Petry. Furthermore, the increased vitality of the city, Petry is quick to point out, “is good for business, for quality of life and for attracting youth.” As artistic leaders from OSU and the city continue to hone their methods of collaboration, central Ohioans can look forward to an increasingly unified and vibrant arts scene, where the binary of “town and gown” may, one day, no longer even be relevant.

2013 Artistic Excellence Winner: The Harmony Project