The history of the arts at Hamilton is, to be frank, a somewhat checkered affair. Its chapter titles might look something like this: Slow Dawning Awareness, Visionary Personalities, Missed Opportunities, Achievement Against All Odds and, most recently, A Determined Commitment to Enhance the Quality and Recognition of its Programs. The plot of Cymbeline has fewer twists and turns -- and thus far a happier ending.
For most of its first century, like many other colleges in those years, Hamilton ignored the arts as a field of study. The faculty taught classical languages, philosophy, religion, history and mathematics. Music, art, theatre and dance were nowhere to be found in the curriculum.
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Hamilton's other Alexander arrived. Like the stage character later based on him, the irrepressible Woollcott '09 stayed well beyond dinner. He founded an acting group called the Charlatans, and a Hamilton theatre tradition was born.
Despite that auspicious start, however, and the many generations of alumni who have since enriched the theatrical world -- as writers, directors, actors, set designers, stage managers, finance managers and producers -- the College that led them to water has not yet taken a drink. Hamilton has never built itself a proper theatre.
In the visual arts, the story is similar. It wasn't until 1920 that Edward Root, Elihu's younger brother, took matters into his own home. There at the crest of College Hill Road he used the pictures he'd been buying to teach an art appreciation course. By 1940, Root had exposed hundreds of Hamilton students to what by then was one of the great small collections in America. For a time in 1953, it appeared at the Metropolitan Museum in New York -- the first exhibit of contemporary art ever to do so.
Yet, when Edward Root retired, there was no place at the College to keep his extraordinary collection and no money to build one. Most of it can now be seen at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica. And Hamilton still lacks sufficient gallery space for storing, displaying and encouraging the study of the visual arts.
In music, Hamilton had a choir of renown, thanks to Woollcott's popular radio broadcasts in the 1920s and 1930s, but even by the late 1970s its curricular offerings remained modest. Kirkland College brought with it an increased demand for music and, in 1971, a new building to help fulfill it. The List Art Center added music classrooms, practice rooms and something totally foreign to Hamilton: a dance studio. After the combination of the colleges, however, the music program quickly outgrew these facilities.
Here this chapter takes a happier turn than the others. With the building of the Schambach Center for Music and the Performing Arts in 1988, Hamilton did for its music program what it must now do for its theatre, dance, studio art and art history programs if it is to offer creative opportunities, provide a first-class education, enhance its reputation and compete for the most talented students and teachers in these disciplines.
The Schambach Center sets a high standard for new facilities, but the role model for the arts (surprise!) is actually the new Science Center. With its clusters of labs, classrooms, offices, seminar rooms and study spaces, the building helps bring a new intimacy to teaching and learning and helps foster the kind of personal education for which Hamilton is known. Without new arts facilities, Hamilton will find it more and more difficult to compete for the best students and faculty in theatre, dance, studio art and art history.
The otherwise impenetrable veil of irony worn by many Hamilton students is often torn away in the allure and excitement of putting on a show.
Hundreds of students bring their enthusiasm to the College's vibrant theatre program each year, and the semester's major production can be counted on to draw, over several nights, a College community audience of 600.
But if the program is healthy, its theatre is a less-than-fabulous invalid. Even those alumni who feel a perverse affection for Minor Theater -- perhaps because it gave life to the first play they wrote or performed in -- are painfully aware of its shortcomings.
As with a number of other older Hamilton buildings, Minor's chief drawback is its lack of flexible space. Its proscenium arch binds the theatre department to traditional plays of Western realism at a time when students are eager to try theatrical formats from other cultures. Students exposed to Asian drama as part of their interdisciplinary studies, for example, cannot explore its intriguing possibilities in Minor.
The theater's other deficiencies are well documented. The scene shop is one level below the stage, so sets must be constructed in modules and assembled above. Costume and prop storage spaces lack proper environmental controls. If the actors don't trip over the paint cans stored in the green room, they get a second chance to stumble while climbing the spiral staircase that leads to the stage. The folding chairs on which the audience sits can make a one-act comedy feel like Long Day's Journey Into Night. But of course nobody minds. Everyone enjoys the experience. Like Clinton in early February, it builds character.
Nevertheless, Hamilton plans to build a new theatre facility at another location. The new complex will have a "black box" theatre that provides everything Minor does not: flexible stage and seating areas, plenty of environmentally controlled storage space, easily accessed scene and costume shops, control booths, a trap room and 175 comfortable places to sit down (though they, too, will be movable). The building will also house a 75-seat lab theatre and rehearsal and seminar classrooms so that, as in the Science Center and the planned expansion of Kirner-Johnson, there is little separation between study and practice, research and scholarship. A theatre professor working with a student on a scene is the equivalent of an English teacher working with a student on a close reading. Great theatre serves to bring people closer, and so will a great new theatre building.
Hamilton's dance program seems to thrive on adversity.
Though born on the lower level of the List Art Center, it now makes do with an awkward rehearsal space high atop Kirkland Residence Hall, giving dancers a healthy walk up to what was once Hamilton's first gymnasium. The members of the troop don't seem to mind much, though perhaps the same cannot be said for the civilians who live directly below. The College plans to relieve all anxieties by moving the dancers to the Saunders building, replacing the scientists who dwelled there until recently. In Saunders, the dance program will at last have customized rehearsal and performance studios, and will share shower and locker rooms with the adjoining fitness center when it, too, is installed in Saunders. Since a number of varsity athletes dabble in dance as another way of staying fit, the juxtaposition is perfect.
Additional rehearsal spaces for music and dance will be created in List or McEwen as other functions vacate those premises. At the same time, Hamilton's Jazz Archive will be rescued from the basement of McEwen and installed in a more accessible location. Established in 1995, it consists of a unique collection of more than 245 interviews on DVD and videotape with some of the greatest musicians of the mainstream jazz and swing era.
To seek "roots" at Hamilton is often more than a metaphorical exercise, and that's equally true for our studio arts program.
As noted earlier, it began with Edward Root in the Root Homestead, which later became the Root Art Center. Studio artists back then did their work in a skylit haven for heliotropic claustrophobes, the tiny fourth-floor garret of Root Hall. Freed from this so-called space in 1971, the artists crossed the road (past the Root Glen and the Root Farmhouse) to reach the List Art Center, where the practice of studio art has been firmly rooted for more than 30 years.
As with music, however, List has been overwhelmed by the demand for studio art space -- in this case by the combination of the Colleges, the overall rise in student population and changing trends in the art world that call for more technology or larger three-dimensional works.
Today, even without distribution requirements, enrollment holds steady in studio arts courses; and as with the sciences, those who do take art take more of it, providing the College with a solid core of enthusiasts who are limited by the facilities in List. The building has been used wisely, but also a little too well over the years, and its ventilation, heating, plumbing and electrical systems all need refurbishing. What Minor Theater is to the theatre program, List is to the studio arts. The campus tour guides instinctively know best; they linger over the pool, the concert hall, the Science Center, but when it comes to the spaces for studio art -- well, isn't Root Glen lovely this time of year?
To rectify this situation, the College plans to expand and renovate the List Art Center, providing larger spaces for drawing and painting, printmaking, ceramics, photography, video and, especially, sculpture. The expansion of List will enable the College to make desirable changes in the above-mentioned programs; the new curricular plan will offer three levels of study: introductory, intermediate and advanced.
The relatively new field of video will play a starring role in the new building. An interdisciplinary program called STARS -- a Studio for Transmedia Arts and Related Studies -- will include edit rooms for video and music, two computer classrooms, senior project spaces, a workshop, a sound stage and a video/photo shooting room. STARS will foster and enable collaboration among students and faculty members in video, music, theatre, dance and arts yet undreamed of. Indeed, the place will welcome dreamers, as all art spaces should.
Although of undeniably crucial value to the arts community since 1982, the Emerson Gallery offers very limited space for the exhibition and study of visual arts at Hamilton.
Visiting shows must be scaled back, and the College's own collection -- largely the result of gifts and bequests by alumni and friends throughout the past 20 years -- cannot be shown. Storage space is filled to overcapacity and retrieval of items a chore. Located in the foyer of the old James Library (now Christian A. Johnson Hall), the gallery is separated by half a campus from the Art History Department and the studio arts spaces.
Hamilton's visual arts program will be greatly enhanced by the construction of a new museum and gallery, to be built in several phases. The first will provide nearly double the current exhibition space for visiting shows and proportional increases in storage, preparation and other support spaces. It will put the offices of the Art History Department near the art and will contain a classroom specially designed for the study of art objects, a seminar room and a slide library adjacent to the exhibition space that shares its environmental controls.
The second phase of the project will add about 50 percent more exhibition space so that the College can permanently display its own collection. It will also include a lecture hall with flexible seating and acoustically isolated projection equipment; a small study or "pocket" gallery in which teachers can design their own exhibitions for purposes of instruction; and additional art-handling, preparation and storage spaces.
The third phase will add more exhibition space, a room for the storage and study of prints, and more storage space to accommodate the future expansion of the collection.
The concentration of all these functions in nearby buildings will guarantee the sustained daily presence of students and faculty members, creating a community of people teaching, learning, studying, conversing and working in the arts -- a place in which Edward Root would no doubt have felt right at home.
I'm fortunate to have been exposed to art at an early age, even before I knew what it was, and I can't imagine my life without it. Most people are not raised this way. That's why exhibit space is important, because it's a way to get the arts to students who don't come to campus with that idea in mind. If it's a place that's energized and fun to go to, it will attract them. Even if you're not going to make art, it can be a part of your life, and we should have a space where students are exposed to it. We're not giving our students a liberal education if we don't encourage them to explore what's out there.
We need to build on the art collection the College already has. That won't happen if we don't have better exhibit space than we have today. If we're asking people to contribute art to the school, we must have galleries where the works can be displayed. For years we've been discussing how sad it is that the College couldn't house Edward Root's collection -- and still couldn't even if it were available today. By raising the funds for the new museum and gallery, we can avoid having this conversation again.
– Linda Johnson '80, Chair, Trustee Planning Committee for the Arts
At Hamilton, we encourage and expect our students to present their work; writing and speaking are two obvious examples of that. But a student who's acting on stage or giving an art exhibition is out in front of the public in the same way, and the College is richer for having their contributions.
We don't cater here to students in a pre-professional way. We don't hoard our resources for arts concentrators. Our programs are inclusive, we seek out students from across the College, and we devote the same energy and attention to non-majors as we do to majors.
The interest that students bring to the arts remains strong and, if anything, is becoming more intense. We have a dedicated and creative faculty in these disciplines. Our programs have grown, our facilities have been well used, and it's time for an upgrade.
– Sam Pellman, Professor of Music and coordinator of the on-campus planning committee for the Arts
Theatre is a laboratory -- a humanist's laboratory. While we're studying and creating theatre art, we examine ourselves in the world. It's not really about entertainment, but about discovery.
The spaces we work in determine what and how we explore, how far or deep we can go. As a spatial and temporal art, and as the most inclusive and expansive of the arts, theatre and theatre education require the most supportive spaces. Minor Theater has been useful partly because it is not a theatre; we have been obliged and free to create other spaces and theatres from it. We have struggled to overcome its technical, spatial, aesthetic and educational inadequacies. But we are always bound by what it lacks.
Imagine what a new space will ignite in the imaginations of Hamilton students. Theatre is a site for public discourse, a way for people to engage ideas and feelings collectively. A new theatre, envisioned as central to the life and culture of the College, will enrich students and the community for generations.
– Carole Bellini-Sharp, Professor of Theatre