Dean Carol Becker Welcomes the Arts to a New Home

March 27, 2017
Carol Becker

Photo by Eileen Barroso

Since it was founded in 1965, Columbia University School of the Arts has produced a stream of award-winning writers, playwrights, filmmakers, actors, directors and visual artists. While the school has never lacked for talent, it has long suffered from a paucity of square footage. Dodge Hall, the 1919 building that is the school’s home, has no theater or adequate screening room for students. The LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies has only a small gallery space. Studios for visual arts and sound arts students are located in Prentis and Watson halls. Public programs are held throughout the Morningside Heights campus and New York City.

“Up until now, the School of the Arts has never been able to show the city what we do, and we’ve never been able to show everyone on campus what we do,” said Carol Becker, its dean since 2007.

All that changes when the Lenfest Center for the Arts opens on the Manhattanville campus. In his vision for a new campus, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger wanted the arts to take a central role. The Lenfest Center delivers on his vision. A sleek 60,000-squarefoot building on West 125th Street, it will host public exhibitions, performances, screenings, symposia, readings, lectures and other events. (The school’s classrooms, rehearsal spaces and administrative offices will remain in Dodge Hall and other locations.)

Carol Becker

Position

  • Dean and Professor of the Arts, School of the Arts

Joined Faculty

  • 2007

History

  • School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dean of Faculty; Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs; Professor of Liberal Arts, 1995-2007
  • School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Professor of Literature and Philosophy, 1978-2007

“It seemed essential to me that the arts be a key part of Manhattanville,” said President Bollinger. “Harlem is an iconic cultural center that we should be a part of and support, and Carol embraces the possibilities that come from bringing together different kinds of people. The work at the School of the Arts—and in the Wallach Gallery—deserves a world-class platform.”

The Lenfest Center will also provide a more publicly accessible home to Columbia’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, which since its founding in 1986 has been tucked away on the eighth floor of Schermerhorn Hall. Its first show, opening April 22, will be the visual arts program’s MFA thesis exhibition. On June 2, the gallery will present Uptown, a survey of work by contemporary artists from Harlem, El Barrio and Washington Heights.

These are the first of many events to be held in the Lenfest Center, including actors’ showcases for the school’s theater concentration, the annual Columbia University Film Festival and a film noir series next March that will be overseen by Richard Peña, a School of the Arts professor and the former director of the New York Film Festival. Series such as “Complex Issues,” in which a pair of School of the Arts faculty members discuss societal issues in relationship to their newest work, will move from a small classroom in Dodge Hall to the new building’s spacious top floor. (The most recent conversation was between Lynn Nottage, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose play, Sweat, is currently on Broadway, and fellow playwright David Henry Hwang, who leads the school’s playwriting concentration.)

Another event in the works is a program featuring neuroscientists from the neighboring Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute in conversation with visual artists who work with emerging technologies.

“Our emphasis will be to make contemporary art available to the public through conversations and exhibits with artists and thinkers working in and across multiple forms,” Becker said. “For the first time, all the different disciplines will be working together in one building. We can invite everyone in the adjoining neighborhoods and the Columbia community—undergraduates, graduates, all the schools together—to experience what we’ve been doing for decades.”

Q. What does the Lenfest Center bring to the University?

A. It’s always been our dream that the new building could serve many constituencies. First will be the school and our own students, who are receiving master of fine arts degrees. We also teach more than a thousand undergraduate students every year in creative writing, visual arts, film studies and other disciplines. We have not had the space to build an undergraduate audience for the work that comes out of the school, and it is a great pedagogical model for undergraduates to see and experience what our graduate students are producing. It also will allow undergraduates to understand what it means to have a career in the arts and grapple with the issues being dealt with by artists around the world who engage important social issues—whether in economics, public health or the environment. If you want to understand the internal life of other cultures, it can be accessed through art. At Lenfest, undergraduates will be able to see that the arts are not just an addendum to their education, but central to it.

Q. Will the building have a resonance beyond Columbia?

A. Because the school will be much more visible, we also think that the importance of the arts at Columbia will become more visible. We will be able to open Lenfest to everyone in the surrounding neighborhoods. People have no idea how much goes on at the school or how central our mission is to the articulated missions of Columbia; for example, President Bollinger’s ideas for how Columbia can become one of the most global campuses in the world in terms of its thought and action. Our school currently has students from 52 countries, our faculty members travel all over the world to show, discuss and perform their work. We take our role in making the arts visible and important to society very seriously. Now we are going to have the opportunity to do this on a much grander scale.

Q. How did the architectural design for Lenfest, by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, help you achieve your goals for the school?

A. I first met Renzo Piano when I was dean of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and he was designing the museum’s Modern Wing. He loves art schools and is, of course, himself an artist and a poet and one of the most sympathetic people to the production of culture I have known. So it was very easy to explain to him and his team that we wanted our building to work like a factory, to function like a well-oiled machine. We wanted every inch to be useful to the production, viewing and presentation of art. I believed that Lenfest was going to take Renzo back to his roots, to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which he co-designed with Richard Rogers in the 1970s. It was one of the first buildings that made him a star. We wanted Lenfest to have a similar industrial feel, to seem voluminous even though it is a small building, so that it would be inspiring to artists and to everyone who walks into the building.

Q. Can you describe what will be in the building?

A. Because every detail, every inch of Lenfest has been designed to function for the creation of art for multiple audiences, you walk into the very accessible glass lobby, where we plan to hold musical and vocal performances on Friday nights. The next floor up is a 150-seat state-of-the art screening room with advanced digital technology and the capacity to show archival footage. We will do film festivals based on country or region—China, Taiwan, the African diaspora, the Middle East—or thematic festivals, such as the Noir Festival planned for spring 2018, overseen by Professor Richard Peña, or children’s festivals, or documentary festivals. The third floor is a flexible performance space that can be used in multiple configurations for theatrical productions. The space can be opened up so that you can see the urban landscape through floor-to-ceiling windows, or it can be closed to become a black box. Above this is the Wallach Gallery, a fantastic and bright exhibition space. We call the top floor of the building the Lantern. It features a skylight as big as the space, with filtered light. It can be used for concerts, readings, exhibitions, symposia, receptions and so forth.

Q. Will the availability of these new spaces change what the school presents?

A. For the first time, we could do a whole thematic night where every floor and every discipline is working together around similar ideas. That has always been the dream— for all of our programs to collaborate. The whole building was designed with this in mind—that art-making in the present and the future involves all these overlapping disciplines concerned with the same global, societal and aesthetic issues, which will come together in ways that they never could before. This is why such space is so important.

Q. Lenfest is next door to the new Jerome L. Greene Science Center, which is the home of Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. How will the scientists and artists interact?

A. One of the most exciting things about opening Lenfest is that we will be adjacent to the Zuckerman Institute, which is filled with hundreds of neuroscientists and behaviorists. Scientists understand the relationship between what we do and what they do very well. We are all actually involved in experimentation and research. Like us they experiment, fail, take risks and create new bodies of knowledge. In their own ways artists also do this every day. The investment in process is something that people understand very well about science, but they don’t always understand it as well about the making of art. So, connected as we are by this messy process called experimentation, we also are talking to Zuckerman scientists about how to collaborate. We hope to be able to embed artists in their building and see what happens. The fact that in the 21st century art and science are next to each other in this way is a big statement about the aspirations for the new campus.

Q. What does coming to West 125th Street represent?

A. It is thrilling that we are going to be able to participate in the cultural life of Harlem in a more direct way. We’ve had longtime relationships with so many organizations—the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Apollo Theater, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Harlem Stage—and we hope to continue these partnerships and forge others. We want the Lenfest Center for the Arts to become another destination in Harlem where people know they will find innovative cultural programming.

Q. How has your role as an arts school dean affected your life as a writer?

A. I would never understand what I do about process and the obstacles artists must overcome had I not been a dean. I have written numerous essays and several books about art and artists, including Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art and Thinking in Place: Art, Action and Cultural Production. My most recent book, a memoir about my mother, Losing Helen, was truly inspired by my proximity to the extraordinary and daring writers at the School of the Arts. Working in such a creative environment gives me courage.

By Eve Glasberg