- Oliver Parini
- Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio
A dozen dancers moving in unison greeted visitors to the University of Vermont's Michele and Martin Cohen Hall for the Integrative Creative Arts on a recent afternoon. The students weren't performing live. But their production, recorded in Cohen Hall's black box theater in 2020, illuminated video screens throughout the revamped building to showcase its mission.
Five years ago, UVM didn't offer a major in dance, noted Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, during a recent tour of Cohen Hall. That changed when the university received a $300,000 anonymous gift to create a dedicated dance studio, complete with a sprung floor and sound booth.
Di Dio unlocked a first-floor room using a phone app. Inside was a new, high-tech sound studio for students who are studying television, film, theater or music technology. The app gives students 24-hour access to the equipment for recording music, podcasts, film scores and other audio projects. Upstairs is a similarly state-of-the-art lighting studio, used primarily for film production, along with a lending library of digital photography equipment.
Before Cohen Hall opened in 2018, UVM had none of these facilities, Di Dio said — even though courses in music technology and film and television studies are some of the school's most popular.
"Frankly, this is not stuff we usually had money for at UVM," she said.
The arts appear to be experiencing a renaissance at Vermont's flagship university. On July 1, UVM announced the creation of its new School of the Arts, which gathers many creative disciplines under one roof: music, theater, dance, studio art, art history, creative writing, and film and television studies. The Lane Series, which brings internationally known musicians to campus, is also now part of the school.
- Courtesy of Dok Wright
- UVM Department of Theatre's The 39 Steps
Many of those programs are housed in Cohen Hall, a Depression-era elementary school building that was transformed into a 21st-century multimedia center thanks to a $7 million gift from 1972 graduate Michele Resnick Cohen and her husband, Marty Cohen.
Those improvements are coupled with another $4 million in expansions and upgrades to the UVM Recital Hall, which were completed in October 2020. They included new lighting and acoustical treatments, refurbished floors and seats, and 4,550 square feet of new greenrooms, rehearsal space and instrument storage. Combined, these two facility upgrades represent a significant investment in the university's arts infrastructure.
In a post-pandemic era when college arts programs around the country are struggling to attract students and funding, UVM is doubling down on such offerings. The School of the Arts, which enrolls one-quarter of all students in the College of Arts and Sciences, unites previously disparate programs and departments while encouraging collaboration and career development, both within the university and with outside arts organizations. According to Di Dio, it will also help UVM fundraise and attract new students by marketing itself as an interdisciplinary arts institution.
Some may greet those pronouncements with skepticism, given that UVM's reshuffling of its arts offerings comes on the heels of dramatic budget cuts. In spring 2020, the administration announced a 25 percent reduction in courses taught by nontenure-track faculty as a way to offset $15 million in pandemic-related losses. Then, in December 2020, College of Arts and Sciences dean William Falls proposed phasing out a fifth of the college's course offerings, nearly all in the humanities.
But Di Dio, who also serves as the School of the Arts' new executive director, said changes to UVM's arts programs have been under discussion since 2016, long before the budget cuts. The purpose is not to shrink or consolidate the arts at UVM, she insisted, but to expand them with more faculty, staff and facilities, and make the arts more viable and visible on campus.
"The School of the Arts was not a cost-saving mission," she said. "We see the school as a way to better conform to the way contemporary art ... is conceived, performed and exhibited."
As Di Dio pointed out, many of the majors now housed in the School of the Arts are among the fastest growing at the college, including music technology, music and art education, dance, and film and television studies.
Natalie Neuert, director of the Lane Series and a lecturer in the music program, agreed that the new school's creation is a positive development for students and faculty alike.
"There's already been more investment made [in the arts] than I've seen in a while," said Neuert, who's worked at the university for 28 years. "It makes absolute sense, and it will only strengthen the arts at UVM."
One goal of the new school is to make arts programs more career oriented by creating opportunities for student internships and collaborative projects. That's especially true for the Lane Series, Neuert said, which for years was physically and administratively separated from the rest of the arts programs on campus.
Now, the Lane Series and UVM's music program (formerly the music department) share a technical director: Padraic Reagan, cofounder of the Waking Windows music festival. His office is next door to Neuert's.
- Courtesy of Lindsay Raymondjack
- UVM Department of Theatre's Pippin
That relationship has already borne fruit, Neuert noted. Reagan's office employs a work-study student from the theater program. When the student expressed interest in learning stage lighting, Neuert offered her an opportunity to apply 25 percent of her work-study requirement to doing lighting for Lane Series performances.
"That's the kind of thing that was harder to do when theater and Lane Series and the music department were completely separate entities," she said.
The School of the Arts has created other opportunities for such "cross-pollination," said Julian Barnett, assistant professor and resident choreographer of the theater and dance program.
This fall, Barnett is co-teaching a large lecture class called "Looking and Listening" with a fine arts professor and a music professor. Open to non-arts majors, the course is designed to give students — especially those with little or no previous experience in the arts — an opportunity to discuss and learn about those disciplines while also meeting their own degree requirements.
Such a collaboration never would have happened before the School of the Arts was established, Barnett said. "This is a long time coming," he added. "It gives me faith that the university is serious about the arts."
In his previous work in Philadelphia, Wahl often partnered with local universities to teach classes on storytelling, producing and curating. Now, in his relatively new role at the Flynn, Wahl said he envisions a similar relationship with UVM as being "foundational to who we are" as a community arts organization.
Wahl pointed to several upcoming shows at the Flynn that School of the Arts faculty plan to attend with their students and incorporate into their lesson plans. For instance, the October 13 production Bone Hill draws on stories from the heritage of Black and Cherokee singer-songwriter Martha Redbone, dealing with the Trail of Tears, Kentucky coal mining and the Black community's migration north.
Down the road, Wahl said, he hopes to work with Di Dio and other School of the Arts faculty to create internships and work-study opportunities at the Flynn. Though he noted, "These are things that will all take some time," Wahl called the new school "such a natural and exquisite partner."
Jarvis Green is founder and producing artistic director of JAG Productions, an artistic venture for Black creatives in American theater, which is based in White River Junction and New York City. Though JAG just began its seventh performance season, Green said when Di Dio reached out to him this summer, it was the first time UVM had shown serious interest in working with his company.
JAG doesn't have its own building or performance space yet. But Green said he's excited about the possibility of teaching theater production at UVM and maybe even establishing a summer residency program at the School of the Arts.
While JAG has worked with other universities in the past, Green said he hasn't seen the level of commitment to collaboration that UVM has expressed.
"They really want to take us with them," he said, "and they're putting resources behind it."
Thus far, about the only people who haven't been wowed by the School of the Arts are the students. Of the five contacted for this story, most knew little or nothing about what the new school could mean for their education and future careers.
Irene Choi, a senior from Bar Harbor, Maine, is a double major in jazz studies and anthropology. She wrote in an email, "I wish there were more clarity and transparency from the powers that be, especially to the students that these administrative changes will be affecting."
Di Dio acknowledged that it will take time to communicate many of the changes to students, who just returned to campus for the fall semester. Hiring new faculty to better serve the 1,200 students who either major or minor in the arts has already begun. Since 2021, programs now in the School of the Arts have added seven full-time lecturers in art history, studio art, theater and music education, as well as three new tenure-track positions in dance, art and art history, she said. Also included are four new postdoctoral fellows in the Andrew Harris Fellowship Program, which brings in emerging BIPOC scholars in the arts.
Di Dio maintains that all these new hires and opportunities in the school will make a tangible difference to students down the road, whether they end up in the spotlight or plying a behind-the-scenes arts trade such as stage lighting, music recording or television production.
"One thing that's important to me is that, yes, students can have a career in the arts, and they can stay in the state of Vermont to do that," she said. "They don't just have to go into banking."