While one of the missions of a major university is research, the arts are often not thought of in that context. In addition, the interdependence of the arts and other areas of academia - as well as other areas of human endeavor - is often not fully appreciated. At UCLA, the School of the Arts and Architecture is taking steps to address these perceptions and to show that the arts are inextricably linked to the rest of our culture.
The school’s dean, Brett Steele, is the first architect to hold the position. Prior to assuming his post in 2017, he was director of London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture. Steele was a student there in the 1980s and returned as an instructor in the ’90s. “I went for a year and stayed for 25,” he says. What brought him back to the United States?
“UCLA. The opportunity to work with brilliant people, faculty, staff and students in a school that is unique in the arts today: under one umbrella, we have four very different kinds of creative minds working. We have performers and scholars in a department like World Arts and Cultures/Dance; we have designers in a very broad definition of design in Design Media Arts; we have the Art department, which has some of the world's brilliant artists teaching and working with students every week of their lives; and Architecture & Urban Design, which focuses on a traditional area of design or large scale building, planning and urban design. At UCLA, those faculties live under one umbrella in the school and, in addition to that, we have two terrific museums and the Center for the Art of Performance. It’s a remarkable, vital spectrum, all within our public university.
“I'm very lucky to have been invited to help guide a school of this form. In the States there really isn't a model like it, and there are very few in the world. My job in leading the school is to envision the choreography and the movement of ideas as significant as the choreography of the dancer; where the arts are creating a body of research no different than any other of UCLA’s other great schools. The arts play a unique role here on campus and Los Angeles so it’s the ideal setting for this exploration.”
A centerpiece of the school’s academic outreach to other fields of study – and to the public – is ART&Arc 100: Ten Questions, an interdisciplinary course designed to stimulate the creation and exchange of new knowledge across the university. The inaugural offering of the course will take place this fall; each of the 10 sessions will be moderated by Dean Steele and feature a panel of UCLA scholars, artists, scientists and researchers from different fields of study focusing on a single fundamental question each week.
Session topics for the 10 weeks include:
Each class will feature two panelists from the arts and two from other areas of study. Participants will include astronomy professor Andrea Ghez, neurosurgeon Dr. Kelsey Martin and theater director Peter Sellars, among other accomplished UCLA faculty members. The sessions are open to the public.
“As is the case with science, the arts in their own unique way attempt to understand and make sense of the world around us,” Steele said. “Knowledge is produced in very iterative forms of investigation in both the arts and sciences. One prototype leads to a set of results that leads to another version and another as you keep refining ideas and making discoveries.
“A school is defined, in part, by its ability to look beyond itself and reconnect with the essential. That includes reconnecting with our incredible alumni audience that is literally all over the world. One of the projects we have begun this year is taking the school out on the road to different events. Each of those events becomes an opportunity to connect with alumni whose experiences at UCLA have spanned decades and reconnect with them, to understand from them who and what we are now - to get their perspective. And this course provides an opportunity for them to come back to campus and reconnect.”
In order to further the reach of the arts across campus and throughout the city, Dean Steele is working alongside other arts leaders at UCLA - the deans of the two other art schools (Theater, Film, Television and the new Herb Alpert School of Music, which became a separate school in 2016) – as well as the directors of the three public arts units that sit formally within the School of the Arts and Architecture (Center for the Art of Performance, the Fowler and the Hammer Museum).
“We've come together as a group of six arts leaders alongside humanities dean David Schaberg to begin a conversation about the presence of the arts more broadly across campus. We convene a group that I chair called the Arts Leadership Group at UCLA, which meets every month to talk about ways in which we can continue to take the arts out, not just within campus but beyond campus to the entire city. To me this is another really strong sign of the University's commitment to the arts. A school really is a platform in many different ways and part of the way we use that platform is to provide opportunities to connect everybody with what is happening in L.A. right now.”