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Dancers leaping
Dancers Jacey Curd (left), a senior from Longmont, Colorado, and Rachel Tang, a freshman from Brookfield, Connecticut, were good sports as they leaped dozens of times – on concrete – to get the perfect grand jeté in front of the Ruby. Photo by Chris Hildreth

Arts Ascending

How Duke uniquely serves the scholar and the artist

There is a two-hour window between the final dress rehearsal and the opening performance of the play “Ocean Filibuster” at the Reynolds Industries Theater.

Assistant stage manager Ivy Sun is as calm as they come. Dressed in dark clothes and a black mask, Sun radiates cheerful ease, as if raised backstage. In actuality, the Duke senior found theater only in her sophomore year. Movies had never impressed her, but when she finally checked out theatrical performance recordings and then a production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” something awakened. Now Sun, who previously majored in biology and Asian/Middle East studies, is a theater studies major with production credits in student and professional shows. She’s found magic through art.

“I always have a hard time communicating my imagination with others,” Sun says. “But with theater we each add a little piece. And that will become a collaborative thing.”

Duke has long been a destination school for future doctors, lawyers, scientists and engineers, but less so for artists and performers. The university’s arts programs were run independently and spread across campus. There were arts and artists, but in pockets. What Duke needed was an umbrella organization, so in 2020, the events presenter Duke Performances was expanded and reimagined as Duke Arts, to be led by the university’s first full-time vice provost for the arts, John V. Brown. The new, broader organization aimed to encompass all arts at Duke, from academic programs to professional productions to literature to arts-based wellness workshops.

Duke Arts has embraced its complex challenge. Today it comprises four undergraduate academic departments – Art, Art History & Visual Studies; Dance; Music; and Theater Studies – with a broad range of majors, minors and certificate options. At the graduate level, programs include an M.A. or Ph.D. in music composition, digital art history or computational media, or an M.F.A. in Dance or in Experimental & Documentary Arts. And Duke Arts Presents – the former Duke Performances – brings to campus professional dance, music and theater as well as visual and literary arts events.

Still, its overarching mission is to incorporate the arts into the mainstream Duke experience.

“Our charge is to make sure that we have arts experiences,” Brown says. “Duke has invested in substantively making sure these experiences are of value, that the academic arts experiences have rigor and that the social arts experiences address wellness, address the whole person.”

Brown, a jazz bassist from Fayetteville, North Carolina, has taught music at Duke since 2001 and directs the Duke Jazz Program. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s music school, Brown’s student experience was very different from the one he found at Duke. In Greensboro, fine arts students were immersed in their arts majors. At Duke, students with the same level of artistic skill were focused instead on, say, math, science or engineering, but still pursued equally challenging arts passions in their spare time. Brown, who also holds a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, may see a bit of himself in these student-artists with their feet in two worlds.

“They could have chosen art as a career, and maybe still can and maybe still will,” Brown says.

Talented student-artists choose Duke rather than a conservatory, MIT President and former Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth explained, for a broader university education and experience. They’re still active in their respective arts, she says, and want creative expression to be an integral part of their college years. In 2019, an arts planning committee convened by Kornbluth and Duke President Vincent Price drafted the Advancing the Arts at Duke Report. It called for a full-time vice provost for the arts and more coordinated, curated programming in the Rubenstein Arts Center.

“I saw opportunities for us to talk more, collaborate more and be informed and inspired by each other’s work,” Brown says.

At the head of the new Duke Arts, Brown drew on his experiences as a member of both the faculty and local community. He thought back to his own time living on a university campus, but also drew on his immersion in Duke student life through the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. Brown looked to the Duke University Health System, which is also a university/community intersection, and to how Stelfanie Williams ’98, Duke vice president for Durham and community affairs, navigates the same intersection. Duke Arts had to reach the community, but also the on-campus artists that the older, more scattershot model missed.

Jules Odendahl-James – “Dr. OJ” to her students – is director of academic engagement for the arts and humanities and a professional theater artist. She spends much of her day talking with students who create art and consume art but aren’t totally sure what they can do with their creative drive. There is a lot of tension between what students deem practical (typically a STEM field) and what they’re passionate about (which could be any form of art).

“What kind of faculty can I engage them with? That requires me to know what the faculty are doing,” she says. “Also, thinking about these larger commitments that Duke makes – where do the arts show up in those?”

In “Ocean Filibuster” – which Duke Arts presented at Odendahl-James’ suggestion – the ocean argues for its own right to exist. It’s a darkly absurdist play about climate change and power dynamics, directly relevant to Duke’s Climate Commitment, Odendahl-James’ work and Ivy Sun’s drive to find a career in theater. The arts are sometimes viewed in the margins, as ancillary, says Brown, yet they can be connected to the pulse of Duke. And any artist or lover of art on campus or in the community beyond is welcome under the Duke Arts umbrella – an umbrella as big as creativity itself.

“We want to keep people from having to think about what category they fit into,” says Brown.