Fall 2020 Arts Next: Dean’s Letter

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Practicing resilience, creativity and innovation in a pandemic

Dean Doug Dempster

We’ve never encountered a challenge like this before—to state the obvious. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented worries and challenges to the arts and to education. The College of Fine Arts is working its way cautiously but resiliently, if I can be so confident, through those intersecting challenges.

Not so many years ago, many of us thought and said that, unlike other fields, art and especially the performing arts could not be taught effectively online with digital technologies substituting for in-person, embodied creativity and collaboration. This crisis is teaching us just how wrong—and how right—we were.

When our faculty had to pivot almost overnight to a completely online teaching model last spring, we quickly realized the need for pedagogical mentoring to make this possible. I appointed Julie Schell as the college’s new assistant dean for instructional continuity and innovation—with the emphasis on “innovation.” Lasting innovation. Julie has worked tirelessly to support our faculty members in making this technology work for their teaching. From testing new online tools to advising on how to translate traditional in-person learning activities, Julie and our faculty have done an incredible job of ensuring that students continue to have a high-quality educational experience.

When Bass Hall and Texas Performing Arts went dark during the spring, they were forced to cancel or postpone multiple live events, losing millions of dollars in revenue as a result. But Bob Bursey, who had moved to Austin as executive director of the TPA fewer than six months before campus shut down, saw an opportunity where others would have just folded their tent.

Working with the Fusebox Festival, Bob created a new residency program that provides artists from the Austin community both laboratory space and generous funding to develop new work, with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. In its inaugural year, the residency program is supporting four projects: two projects from our own faculty members, Professor Charles O. Anderson and Associate Professor Gesel Mason, as well as Theatre and Dance alumnus and director, writer, performer and teaching artist Rudy Ramirez and Frank Wo/Men Collective, composed of several alumni from the Department of Theatre and Dance.

These are just two of countless examples of creative adaptation under stress in teaching and creativity. If the American poet Robert Frost was right that free verse was like playing tennis without a net, artists and teachers everywhere are now creating, teaching and collaborating over a 10-foot-high net. Pray for health and a vaccine, but also watch and be grateful for the unexpected moments of genius and generosity this brings us.

Excelsior!

Dean Doug Dempster signature

Dean Doug Dempster

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