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Michigan State University

Can the arts help us feel more connected to a place?

Fall is often the time when universities spring to life — when students, faculty, staff and many others in the community converge on campus for classes, work or leisure. And whether you are reengaging with a place like MSU or encountering it for the first time, feeling a sense of belonging becomes more important than ever. We often look to the arts to provide us with the comfort, connection and understanding needed for us to establish relationships with where we live and to one another. But why?

Judith Stoddart is the vice provost for University Arts and Collections at Michigan State University. As the university announces a unified approach to the arts with Arts MSU, Stoddart explains how the arts can help us feel more connected to the places we inhabit by looking at how the arts are interconnected and contextualized by MSU’s campus.

What is MSU’s campus-wide arts strategy and how did you help shape it?

The campus-wide arts strategy, Arts MSU, is a framework for making the arts visible and present in the fabric of the university and the community. Arts MSU intentionally embeds the arts into academics, research and outreach at Michigan State. Weaving the arts integrally into students’ education — both inside and outside of the classroom — fosters holistic problem solving. Designing opportunities to bring the arts into conversation with research across fields catalyzes innovation, opening up new ways of approaching and addressing some of the most complex issues we face. And making the arts part of the everyday experience of everyone on MSU’s campus — whether you live, work or visit here — creates a sense of belonging and community both to this place and to one another.

My role is to be a point of connection for the strategy within the provost’s office. I collaborate with campus and community partners across disciplines to pilot initiatives or to identify new potential collaborators. My office also is charged with creating visibility for the amazing things that are happening in the arts on MSU’s campus.

“A hidden gem” is a comment that surfaced frequently in campus and community focus groups while planning the strategy, as well as in visitor feedback surveys at various arts venues and events. As a university that values access to meaningful educational experiences, we knew we did not want anything about our vibrant arts community to be hidden. To increase visibility of all we have to offer, we launched a new website that makes it easier to find opportunities to engage with and to learn about the impact of MSU’s arts both on campus and throughout the state. That’s been the sort of tangible progress that a collaborative, strategic approach to the arts has allowed us to make.


How do the arts help us learn about and connect to new places?

The arts are a way of seeing, knowing and being in the world: they reflect, question, reinterpret and innovate.

Two of the strongest champions of the arts at MSU are Clifton R. Wharton Jr., former MSU president from 1970 to 1978, and his spouse Dolores Wharton. While they were here, the Whartons collected art created by the faculty and displayed it in Cowles House. In a wonderful archival video produced in 1971, Dolores Wharton explained that in coming to a new place, they looked to the art to help them understand their surroundings, and this was the impetus for their faculty art collection.

When Dolores Wharton sought to learn more about her home at MSU through the lens of faculty artists, she looked to their perspectives and lived experiences in this university context to better understand our campus culture and what makes MSU unique.

MSU’s strategic plan says that “to remain among the most societally impactful universities . . . requires us to act with intention.” The arts in this place — in Michigan, at the heart of a major research and land-grant university committed to accessibility, impact and transformation — ultimately contribute to change because that is fundamental to who we are at MSU. The arts here are different because they intersect with and respond to the unique characteristics and strengths of our communities.

One recent example of this is “Resistance Training: Arts, Sports and Civil Rights” a new exhibition at the MSU Broad Art Museum that brings together faculty research and the rich history of sports and social justice on campus to explore the intersection of arts and athletics. The museum will partner with the Department of Theatre in a tailgating community-engaged performance with a visiting artist-in-residence around MSU’s homecoming. This exhibition spotlights our history, our values and our campus culture. Visitors to this exhibition will not only learn about the intersections between arts, sports and civil rights, but they also will learn more about our MSU community through the lens of artists.

Students engage with
Students engage with "And Those Spartans Play Good Ball," a homecoming performance by the Department of Theatre's artist-in-residence Mike Durkin at the MSU Broad Art Museum.
"Resistance Training: Arts, Sports, and Civil Rights" installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2023. Photo: Vincent Morse.

Part of what makes MSU distinct is the fact that it is a leading global research university. How are the arts here a part of and connected to MSU’s research, which is an important aspect of campus culture?

Art is already a form of research: it investigates, explores, discovers and produces new knowledge. And bringing the arts together with MSU’s research strengths to codiscover and cocreate produces arts experiences that can only happen here.

For example, the Wharton Center for Performing Arts collaborated with the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams to commission a powerful dance, “Of Equal Place: Isotopes in Motion” which fused the science of FRIB with similar concepts in dance, such as stability and instability, acceleration and fragmentation. The 2022 performance translated what happens at FRIB in a way that made it meaningful and comprehensible across ages, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. These partnerships are ongoing and constantly evolving. This year, we are introducing a new artist-in-residence program, funded by MSU Federal Credit Union, that brings together FRIB, a visiting artist and the MSU Museum to create together across the sciences and arts.

A performer of
"Of Equal Place: Isotopes in Motion" incorporates dance, video, and physics to create an exhilarating and engaging contemporary performance.

In another recent example, MSU plant biologists and MSU composers created a concert series called the Falling Tree Collaborative which explored the themes of climate change, sustainable food production and the wonder of systems involving plants.

As you can see through these examples, the arts not only respond to the research happening on this campus — they generate it. They help us understand and reflect on how we know what we know, how we experience our world and how we hope to impact our collective futures.


How do the arts foster a sense of belonging at MSU?

Alberto Ibargüen, the dynamic and influential president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has talked about why the foundation — one of the most powerful forces in U.S. philanthropy — invests in art and culture. In a 2018 address he said it could be summed up in nine words: “Art binds people to place and to each other.”

He went on to describe research supporting this statement, which shows that more than education or work, art and culture attach people to where they live. The arts provide experiences — communally and individually — that help us make meaning, tell stories and connect across differences.

Sometimes we connect with arts that are familiar and create a feeling of belonging in a place; sometimes we encounter art that is decidedly unfamiliar and makes us stop and reconsider what we thought we knew. The arts ground MSU in multiple perspectives across time, cultures, identities, backgrounds; they celebrate the local and the global.

Originally published by MSU Today

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