Deans Letter: Who Do We Need to Be as an Arts College of the 21st Century?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019
From Arts Next Fall 2018
Dean Doug Dempster

This spring, 30 members of the college’s leadership—faculty members, staff members and administrators—retreated for two days into the Hill Country, reflecting on the history and future of arts education and our college. The retreat provided a rare, cross-disciplinary occasion to think creatively as a single community with shared values. We literally let our hair down and took our shoes off. Most gratifying of all, a consensus and resolution emerged from that solidarity: to respect and extend our traditions, and to rethink and modernize our self-image and the image we project publicly.

So much has changed in the 82 years since the college’s founding in 1937. The influence of technology on cultural production and consumption alone is inestimable, the cultural equivalent of the advent of the steam engine or the telephone. Globalization and geopolitical dynamics have flattened artistic hierarchies. And we are now alert as never before to the influence of business, trade, law and public policy on every form of cultural expression, whether high art, pop entertainment or indigenous culture.

The College of Fine Arts has during the past decade accelerated its program evolution to keep pace with the world spinning ever more rapidly around us. We’re collaborating across the university as never before with the Dell Medical School and with our colleagues in computer science, business, communication and engineering. We have student innovation awards and student-run arts festivals. We’re bridging the arts and technology to prepare students for creative tech, animation and gaming jobs. Texas Performing Arts and Landmarks have become professional preparation laboratories. We’ve added programs in creative entrepreneurship and new minors in Arts Management and Administration (which includes newly created curriculum for entertainment business), as well as a certificate program in Design Strategies. We’re moving into extended and executive education in a big way.

Our college has reached a point in its history where we are straining against the boundaries of what was accepted as a “fine art” when the college was founded.

Who are we today, and how do we talk about ourselves as a college? How do we best position ourselves for growth and success for generations to come? Those were the questions our leadership tackled during our retreat.

To help us grapple with these epic questions, we engaged a marketing firm to study perceptions of the college by our students, faculty members, donors and collegiate peers. The data reinforced many closely held convictions. It also showed some persistent shortcomings in our programs, especially when it comes to the professional preparation students need for the 21st-century beyond the Forty Acres.

I was enormously impressed by the creativity and courage of my colleagues at the retreat and was pleasantly surprised at the near-universal consensus that our name—the “College of Fine Arts”—is not expansive enough or sufficiently contemporary to include all that we now do as a college and all that we must do for our students in the future.

As we think about who we need to be as an arts college of the 21st century and beyond, our name is our most visible signal of our commitments and aspirations. It’s time to think seriously about renaming our college to better reflect our identity and the time we live and create in.

Excelsior!

Dean Doug Dempster

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