Building Bridges through the Arts
When then-new UVA President Jim Ryan stood to address his first arriving class on Grounds, he boiled his message down to a simple sentence. “When in doubt,” he said, “build a bridge.”
He went on to explain the concept, which has been a core principle for him from the day he was hired, saying “By building bridges with your fellow students, with faculty and staff, and with the broader Charlottesville community, you will both strengthen this community, and you will learn and grow as a person. Just like the brain builds connections across neurons as it develops and grows, a community is only as strong as the connections within it, and you, personally, will grow by making connections with others."
Building bridges is the centerpiece of an overall initiative that has resulted in remarkable collaborations that have engaged UVA students and faculty with others in the University community, in the broader Charlottesville community, and beyond.
It is no surprise that the Arts at UVA have taken President Ryan’s directive and run with it. The arts are, after all, history’s finest bridge builders, connecting people with meanings larger than themselves, and with each other, in ways nothing else can.
What better place to start this conversation than at…The Bridge? The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative in Charlottesville has a mission to bridge diverse communities through the arts, and that is precisely what the organization did with UVA's McIntire Department of Music to launch the monthly joint Telemetry Series, featuring students, locals, and renowned experimental performers.
The goal is to push boundaries of musicianship by offering a unique opportunity to engage new methods of composition and instrumentation. Past collaborators have included South African hip-hop artist, social activist, community educator, and entrepreneur Xolile (‘X) Madinda sound artist and improvisational music master Anne La Berge, and UVA's own Matthew Burtner, known for performing human-nature interaction music that explores systems of noise, ecoacoustics, polymetrics, and embodiment.
Of course, it does not end there with Music. In 2018-2019 alone, they put on 77 freeconcerts and events, and an additional six concerts that were free to those under 18. We can also look to their faculty for incredible outreach; for example, John D'earth hosts the Pre-Cognitive Conservatory Orchestra, a variable group of pre-teen-aged and teen-aged musicians who meet on Saturday mornings to play freely improvised music, often on instruments they have never tried to play before.
Then there is Nomi Dave, who teaches a year-long course through Arts & Sciences Civic and Community Engagement Program where students conduct fieldwork around Charlottesville and learn about the history, methods, and ethics of music ethnography. The students investigate the hidden voices and sites of music in Charlottesville and work together with community artists to create a musical map.
Last May, Victory Hall Opera reached across boundaries for its sold-out recital, Sally on West Main. The performance, which combined William Bolcom and Sandra Seaton’s song cycle From the Diary of Sally Hemings, a piece that explores Hemings’ story and its meaning not just at Monticello, but throughout our community, culture, and history. The piece features excerpts from Chris Farina and Rei Oechsalin’s documentary film West Main Street, and newly commissioned video art by multimedia artist Marisa Williamson, a 2018 UVA Ruffin Distinguished Artist-in-Residence whose work largely surrounds Hemings, and whose video installation tied together threads of inheritance, memory, and storytelling. UVA Arts is proud to support many of the incredible projects created by Victory Hall Opera.
UVA Arts is also proud to support Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership, a community-based literature course created and taught by UVA lecturer Andrew D. Kaufman. Books Behind Bars is building bridges into a world students may never see otherwise. The course takes students to visit with incarcerated youth at a maximum-security juvenile correctional center to explore questions of meaning, value, and social justice through life-changing conversations about Russian literature classics. The course, which has been profiled nationally on the Today Show, in the Washington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, onNPR, and Russian television, and was the inspiration for the 2018 documentary film Seats at the Table, which was shown at last year’s Virginia Film Festival. "When I walked into that building every Tuesday afternoon," one program participant said, "I wasn't locked up. It's like for the next three hours I can live; I can be myself, I can open up, I can be me."
The staff and leadership of The Fralin Museum of Art are among the most prodigious bridge builders on Grounds, or, for that matter, anywhere in the Charlottesville community. They work tirelessly throughout the year to share art experiences with audiences across the entire age and experience spectrums. Their acclaimed ten-week Early Visions program with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia brings UVA students together with children from the Club, forming mentoring relationships that lead to creative activities encouraging exploration of the Museum’s exhibitions, promote critical thinking, and relate to the children’s discoveries to their own lives. The program encapsulates The Fralin’s dual educational missions of providing learning opportunities for both students and community members by harnessing the enthusiasm and skills of University students to deliver innovative educational programs and to create an environment where mentors and mentees learn from and about one another through creative projects. On the other end of the spectrum, the Museum works with the Jefferson Board on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association for Eyes on Art, an innovative program designed in partnership with the Arts Fusion Program of the Central and Western Virginia Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association,to engage people with Alzheimer's in meaningful discussions about art. Specially trained docents lead participants and their caregivers on small group tours when the Museum is closed to the public. Programs explore different exhibitions each month, and many incorporate music and a variety of hands-on projects. The Museum also operates community outreach programs with the Albemarle County schools, as well as other neighboring county school systems, the Gordon Avenue Library, Barrett Early Learning Center, among other organizations.
The Virginia Film Festival, another clear example of a UVA program engaging with the community, aims to educate and engage audiences of all ages in an open dialogue on the art of film through a five-day festival and year-round screenings and events, where they weave programs into the larger community by working closely with local community leaders, businesses, and non-profit organizations. The festival, which presents over 140 films, promotes discussions between artists, students, academics, and audiences about the films and how they relate to the world in which we live and strives to support the films and filmmakers of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Family Day is a perfect example, held on the Saturday of the Festival weekend; it records over 2,000 attendances from local children and families. More than 500 elementary and middle school students from nine local schools participate in their annual Young Filmmakers Academy, a program that so many in our community have participated in over the years! 2019 Festival highlights include: a sold-out Opening Night screening of Academy Award-winning Green Bookintroduced by UVA President Jim Ryan; special guests Christoph Waltz, Allen Hughes, Alexis Bloom, Martin Luther King III, Ben Mankiewicz, Peter Bogdanovich, among many others; the local premiere of Charlottesville, a PBS documentary made in collaboration with the UVA Center for Politics, detailing the tragic events of August 11 and 12, 2017; as well as sneak preview screenings of future Academy Award-winning films Roma, The Favourite, Free Solo, and If Beale Street Could Talk.
Virginia Festival of the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities, works each year with close to 200 community organizations to plan its programming. In addition, the Festival works with subject-area committees made up of UVA and Charlottesville/Albemarle community members who help advise on topics under consideration. The Festival of the Book also regularly spotlights the work of local authors alongside nationally and internationally-acclaimed authors.
University of Virginia interns play a significant role in Festival planning and operations as well, and the event footprint throughout the Festival encourages a healthy mixture of both communities and provides exposure to venues on Grounds not always frequented by local residents.
The School of Architecture is no exception in this discussion. Just one example is Project Pipeline, fundedthrough UVA’s Jefferson Trust, is a mentorship and internship program designed for underrepresented minority high school students who want to know more about design and their environment. The program activities include working at UVA School of Architecture with mentors (current A-school students) and experiencing the tools of the trade; meeting with local architects and designers; taking a field trip to Washington DC to see the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other sites; which all culminates in creating a real community design project.
Bridge building in the arts is not only an endeavor to connect people. The McIntire Department of Art is bringing artists into nature to enhance the many natural ties between art and the scientific world. Last summer at the University of Virginia Mountain Lake Biological Station, a group of professional and student painters, illustrators, sculptors, and others came from across the nation to participate in ArtLab, a two-week program that paired artists and scientists and helped to expand the creative thinking of all involved. UVA art professor Megan Marlatt told the Roanoke Times that there is a thread that unites the two disciplines. "Art and science," said Eric Nagy, biology professor and director of the field station, "are about trying to understand the world through different lenses." This year organizers expanded the lenses of the program, now in its seventh year, by inviting professionals to work with the students there. Some artists went literally underwater, using a GoPro camera to capture images of salamanders moving through the water as a way of informing future work. Others, like UVA Art Professor Akemi Ohira, who was taking part in the ArtLab program for the first time, discovered things that she might normally have dismissed as gross and felt compelled to draw them. UVA Art professor Megan Marlatt told the Roanoke Times that there is no limit to what can happen when creative talents collide. “When you get a group of creative people together, there is a certain synergy that begins to happen,” she said. “You can get a lot of work done with that synergy.”
Those looking to find an avenue for community engagement in the arts, or anywhere in the University, have a valuable resource in Engaged UVA. Engaged UVA is the front door to community partnerships at UVA, designed to connect faculty, students, and communities to mutually beneficial research and teaching programs. The website reflects current and ongoing community-based initiatives and allows users to search for associated faculty, courses, projects, and community partners. Engaged UVA was launched in 2017 by the Office of the Provost and Vice Provost for Academic Outreach with the purpose of gathering and highlighting existing community engagement programs at the University. It allows students to discover new courses with engagement opportunities, faculty to learn more about colleagues doing similar work, and community members to get a sense of the full range of community engagement-focused classes and programs happening at the University. Arts opportunities found by using the arts filter on the site include Bonnie Gordon's acclaimed Arts Mentors, the Musical Ethnography program led by Nomi Dove, “Hip Hop Histories & Engaged Community Storytelling Practice” by A.D. Carson and many others.
At any given moment, it is impossible to quantify the range of work UVA students and faculty are undertaking, or to know the directions that work may go. However, one thing is for sure, where there is art being made, there are bridges being built. And for that, the University, and the community that surrounds it, are better places indeed.