The arts at Georgetown: a work in progress

January 21, 2010

I almost didn’t come to Georgetown because I thought the arts program was so bad. In my family, art was more important than friends, schoolwork, and sometimes physical health. After I finished my freshman year of high school with a very strong GPA, my mother took me aside with a worried look and asked me, “But what are you doing to be creative?”

So when I came to Georgetown, I balked. The Davis Performing Arts Center was just two years old, and tour guides happily showed it off as a sign of how fast the arts were growing, but I was privately alarmed it had taken Georgetown until 2005 to build it. Despite my reservations, I enrolled, telling myself that I was headed in a new, more scholarly direction. My years of high school plays were far less important than the serious-minded, academic classes I’d be taking here to prepare me for real life.

When I found out that three kids that I knew from the Charles River Creative Arts Program—a wonderful summer camp that narrowly escaped the acronym CRAP,  to the delight of every ten-year old there—were at Georgetown too, I was shocked. Some of the most artistic people I knew had come to Georgetown, a university where the visual arts classrooms are confined to a single floor and the Performing Arts Department was created fewer than five years ago. Was it a coincidence?

Yes and no, according to Dr. Anna Celenza, chair of the Performing Arts Department.

“Are we actively recruiting? No, but we’re recruiting students who come to visit,” Celenza said. “Before, when students came and did tours, [DPAC] wasn’t here. Seeing this building in the middle of campus—it’s almost like if you build it, they will come.”

The department has taken off since it became independent from the Department of Art and Art History in 2008. According to Celenza, Theater and Performance Studies and American Musical Culture each have 20 majors and 30 minors, about as many as Georgetown is currently equipped to handle. The Department of Art and Art History boasts even higher numbers, not to mention a popular Masters program in Museum Studies that fills up every year, according to Department Chair John Morrell.

In the past few years, the performing arts in particular have been greeted with an unprecedented amount of enthusiasm. Maybe that’s the reason, despite my rocky first impression of the arts at Georgetown, there is a lot more going on than I perceived. But a great beginning also presents the University with a bigger question: where do we go from here?

“We as a faculty are now stopping and assessing what it is we’re doing, looking at what our major goals are,” Celenza said. “We’re not looking to build a graduate program in performing arts or increase by 100 majors, we want to do what we do better.”

Celenza admits that if a prospective student comes to her hoping to become a first-rate professional musician, she tells them Georgetown is not the place to be. But she’s working hard with the rest of the performing arts faculty to build connections with D.C.-area organizations like National Public Radio, Rolling Stone, and Arena Theater, that offer internships and jobs to a steady stream of Georgetown students.

This growth spurt is an exciting start, but the state of the arts at Georgetown still leaves a lot to be desired. Morrell is proud of what his department has to offer, but after more than 15 years teaching drawing and painting at Georgetown, there’s a disappointment in his voice that hasn’t yet tinged Celenza’s.

“It’s frustrating sometimes because you want it to happen faster than it is,” Morrell said.

During the last fundraising campaign, the University was unable to secure the money to renovate Walsh, but Morrell hasn’t completely lost hope. When he cheerfully dusted off the architectural drawings that were created for Walsh in the nineties, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s a five-story visual arts paradise, with expanded digital labs and skylit studios for majors. It’s nowhere close to being built, but it’s more than I thought Georgetown was capable of planning for.

Morrell dreams big—he advocates adding a course in the arts as part of the core curriculum—but in the meantime, he’ll be satisfied if every student who wants to take an art class can.

To my surprise, I’m taking two. After a year of avoiding the arts, fearing that they would let me down, the art I saw on campus persuaded me that it could be fun. Who knows? I might even learn something. And at the very least, I’ll make my mother proud.

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