The Failure to Prioritize the Arts at Stanford

Posted by at 5:13PM

Stanford is not a school generally known for its arts programs, and if you ask anyone who has any knowledge of Stanford, they’ll tell you flat-out that there is not much of an arts scene on campus. Arts are certainly not at the forefront of campus culture and not valued as highly as other pursuits.

Stanford Drama put on a highly acclaimed production of Rent in Roble Studio Theater. Since then, that space has been completely shut down by the County, leaving many performing arts departments and groups in even more need of adequate space. Photo from Stanford Drama.

In recent years, the University has made an ostensible push to try to improve the state of the arts on campus. There’s the Arts Initiative, replete with a snazzy brochure. There’s the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts (SICA), which has, among other endeavors, hosted a number of meetings of student arts leaders to try and brainstorm ways to increase the presence and ubiquity of arts at Stanford. All of these efforts are important and crucial to making headway in the fight to make the arts better. But despite the work of these groups and the University’s claims to the contrary, the University continues to make large-scale decisions that make it very clear that the arts do not have first priority at Stanford.

For those who live in the West Campus boonies and like to work out, the recent news of the Board of Trustee’s approval of a new gym on Roble Field is good news. For those of us who know the story of the old Roble Gym, however, however, the decision is less unilaterally positive.

Roble Gym, which has its own Wikipedia page, is a gorgeous early 20th century building. The Athletic department occupied Roble Gym until the new gym, the Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation (ACSR), was built in 2004. The Athletic department moved to ACSR and gave most of their building over to the Drama and Dance departments. There was a huge problem, however: as an old building, Roble Gym has many problems, most notably a failure to comply to more modern fire and other standards. Neither the Athletic department nor the University wanted to, or still wants to, pay the heavy costs to retrofit and upgrade the building–it’s pretty expensive, and in very poor shape. (Take a look at the locker rooms, for example). In the years since the Drama and Dance departments took over the building, Roble Gym has essentially been condemned and parts of the building, including the main theater space, have been completely shut down by the County. For departments already significantly struggling with facilities–one higher level administrator noted, “Many junior high schools have better [drama] facilities than Stanford”–this has made it nearly impossible for any theater on campus, including any student groups that perform, to find space. And the problem extends to all of the arts: musician and Daily columnist Lucas Johnson can tell you about the state of the music facilities on campus.

Knowing this, the decision to build a new gym on Roble Field seems like a huge slap in the face for the arts. I asked a relevant source about this decision, and I was told that the Drama/Dance departments have been assured that the new gym will allow the Athletic department to move out of the locker rooms still in Roble Gym and allow Drama/Dance to fully take over the whole Roble Gym building. The approved new gym, it seems, will fix the mistakes of ACSR and actually include locker rooms.

I do not find the explanation that Drama/Dance are benefiting from this new gym very convincing, however. Stepping back and looking at this situation, we can map it as such: Athletics built a new gym and gave Drama/Dance most of the old space it didn’t want any more; this old space has been partially shut down because it does not meet standards; now, Athletics will build a second new gym, this time in the vicinity of the old space it didn’t want any more, so that Drama/Dance can have the rest of the semi-condemned building that Athletics didn’t want any more.

This example serves to highlight how the Stanford prioritizes different aspects of the university over others. Athletics is convenient for this example, but it is not just confined to athletics. This is not to say that the arts should always be more valued than other departments or activities or interests; rather, arts should be valued equally. A musician is as valuable as an actor as an athlete as an entrepreneur, but the University’s priorities clearly fail to respect this. As long as the University values the arts less highly, people on campus will value the arts less highly.

If Stanford truly wants to promote the arts, it needs to start by fixing its priorities. Building a new gym when the most recent gym was built a mere seven years ago and the arts facilities are incredibly poor is a clear statement that the arts are not as important as athletics or other parts of the University. If we continue down this path, Stanford will not be able to make significant strides towards improving the arts, no matter how many times the University publicly claims it wants to.


9 Responses to “The Failure to Prioritize the Arts at Stanford”

  1. Rick says:

    Are you not aware of the state-of-the-art Bing arts center being constructed directly across from the Cantor Arts Center?

  2. Josh says:

    I am indeed. It’s very nice, and I think it’s an important building. Certainly a step in the right direction for music on campus, though I am unsure it will actually contribute to student music and mostly contribute to LivelyArts and other programs aimed at the Palo Alto community. For more on music spaces on campus, see

    However, music is one of many arts on campus. My main complaints are centered on the Drama and Dance departments, which are suffering from all of the ailments I describe above. The new music building is nice, but I don’t think it means that arts are being prioritized in the way other areas of the school are.

  3. Justin says:

    And I’m sure you’ve seen the art building: blah ’60s brutalism at its best that makes our art program seem like Stanford’s sick, neglected old man. Our art department isn’t exactly renowned, but if the department had new digs like the (and pretty much everyone else), maybe it could help art become a bigger force on campus. (I think I heard about plans to move Art from Cummings to somewhere adequate, but I don’t get any sense of urgency, and wouldn’t be surprised if Roble Field’s new gym goes up before any new arts complex.)

  4. Contro says:

    1) We don’t need a new Gym. Wtf. We need better hours for existing facilities, and a retrofitted Roble Gym/Pool.

    2) Seems to me the main way to *bring arts to the campus conscience* is to enable arts participation for the broader campus. I tried to take Comic Drawing for Non-Art Majors: the class was vastly oversubscribed, to the point where an application was required that…selected based on whether the applicant was an art major & had a significant cartoon drawing portfolio already in hand.
    This has a lot of prereqs. More art teachers, more studio space, more studio materials available for student use so a chemistry major taking their one drawing class of their Stanford career doesn’t have to spend $200 on charcoal. But I think it’s the best way to involved the campus community.

    3) @Justin. Don’t dis Cummings. We need more studio space, sure, and if it gets torn up in order to be replaced, so be it. But there’s deep beauty in that building, and it deserves to be appreciated.

    4) While I agree with the general sentiment, I think there’s a bit too much pessimism. SICA and the Stanford Arts Initiative is relatively young, we’re still slogging through a recession, and significant progress, most blatantly manifest by the construction of the new concert hall and plans for the bing arts center, is being made. An Art Affair, anyone? Arts intensive? You’ve got to start somewhere, so I don’t see the reason for despair that drama will be perpetually undervalued.

  5. Brad says:

    I thought that the gym wasn’t a particular move on the university to say we need new gym facilities, but an alum saying they wanted to donate the money particularly for a gym.

    A lot of programs’ success depend on alumni support– which i guess makes sense. The more important, the more likely an alum is to donate?

    The arts might take time but if they could just get that one donor, then maybe things would change.

  6. Contro says:

    Wanted to second Brad on the alum deal. Stanford doesn’t have some enormous queue of all potential construction projects that it shuffles according to the perceived priority of the project according to some high-level admin. There’s a lot of complexity, a lot Stanford doesn’t have complete control over, that determines the projects that get processed.

    Take the age old problem of every college in existence: it’s relatively easy to get donations for a new fancy research building or shiny public space. It’s much harder to get funds for a new dorm, because…well, donors just aren’t as interested in getting their name on a dorm. That Stanford recognizes the arts need priority is significant in & of itself.

  7. Julia says:

    Okay –

    I spent four years complaining about the lack of arts of campus and how much it sucked to be a part of a community that undervalues artists so much as to tolerate Roble gym (josh you didn’t even mention the acoustics – it’s actually hilarious to rehearse in any of the big back rooms). BUT now that I’m a “working” artist, I’m glad that I’m not some yucky NYU kid or pretentious Yalie. Arts are more valued there, but I became an artist in a community that has a lot of different priorities, and maybe more pressing priorities for humanity. I certainly won’t drop everything to design solar cells, but I at least understand that the arts are something that fit in to a larger context. And frankly, Stanford’s opinion towards art is like the real world’s – it’s hard to get funding and only a small amount of people are interested. Basically, maybe Stanford’s arts-insensitivity has actually made me a better artist.

  8. A little skewed says:

    While I think it’s fair to wonder where the university’s priorities are when you see the approval of a new gym (which in itself is fair, given that Arrillaga is often overcrowded even with its extended hours) and the new SEQ campus and the new b-school campus and the proposed new med school campus, we can’t forget that the funds to do these projects are earmarked by donors. That might be a function of the lucrative nature of those disciplines, and so rich alumni are willing to give back for what was relevant to them at Stanford (also, a lot of our athletic facilities/renovations came from Arrillaga, who was an athlete himself at Stanford).

    But to imply that Stanford isn’t making significant headway in the arts is a misrepresentation. As someone pointed out, the new state-of-the-art Bing Concert Hall is slated for completion soon enough. The new b-school opens up several large-scale buildings which are likely going to go to the arts. The Stanford Challenge allocates a huge portion of its donations to improving the arts. Despite some complaints about the performance space that Stanford currently has, let’s not forget the drama department is perennially ranked among the best (in the NRC rankings, Stanford drama came in at #2 in the country, killing all its ‘normal peers,’ predictably behind NYU). Stanford dance is comparably world-renowned. This isn’t by accident. Of course, you could argue it’s a sad reality that despite its quality, the drama department has had to deal with second-rate, hand-me-down space; it’s not so sad to think that it’ll probably be handed-down some of the b-school space. Still hand-me-down, but not second-rate at all. (It’s kind of awesome to think that before one of the country’s premier b-schools got greedy, it was content with its space, which the arts will soon occupy.)

    I agree that there’s a long road ahead though. The size caps, which are necessary for learning and interaction, on many arts classes (including creative writing) hinder students’ freedom to explore the arts. That’s one big problem. Performance spaces are still limited. Music practice rooms are annoyingly lacking–I think it’s ridiculous that we still have to pay to practice in a room (and music isn’t a purely arts endeavor; many forget that musical talent is highly linked to logical ability, e.g. in math–all the brilliant pianists, among other musicians, I know at Stanford are science people who also love music).

    One way to remedy this, which the university’s talked about recently after admins visited Yale, is integrating these arts spaces into the dorms. A strong possibility is to build similar facilities, like music practice spaces and small theaters and arts studios and photography darkrooms, where there’s currently a lot of student parking. The trend seems to be to put parking underground to save on precious campus space, so it doesn’t seem far off to submerge lots outside Wilbur, Lag, etc. Not to mention the driving range-turned-housing area is ripe for a complex of arts facilities and dorms. After all, the Branner parking lot was scratched in favor of a dining hall. Why not arts facilities? Of course it’d be exorbitantly expensive, but if Harvard can undergo a $1billion undergraduate housing project, Stanford can build some decent arts facilities for its students. Stanford’s endowment has already made significant gains sooner than expected, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s larger than its pre-recession levels.

    At any rate, I think it’s only a matter of time before Stanford is considered a premier university for the arts, simply because building up the arts is far less costly than, say, an engineering school (which universities like Yale are dumping their resources into but are still miles behind Stanford); there’s no dearth of artists, renowned ones at that, who could be lured to Stanford with far less cost to the university than top professors in the sciences. Not to mention Stanford and others are looking at Berkeley and other UCs with greedy eyes, as they decline under the weight of budget cuts and the exodus of faculty.

    It’s prime time for the arts at Stanford.

  9. C says:

    I think – and what I’m finding in many education institutions – we need to define “the arts.” Are we talking about the performing arts, musical art, theatrical arts, visual art, etc? Josh clearly said he was talking about the dance and drama dept.

    With Roble, we lost a space for any thing related to dance and theatre. The Bing Concert hall (which originally HAD a theatre in the design, but was later taken out) addresses musical art – instrumental and vocal. It’s a step forward, and yet a step back. The remodeling of the Nitery can be considered a step forward, but it only holds 74 audience members. The only THEATER dance groups can perform in is Pigott or Dink. Dink is hardly a suitable performance space for dance or theatre. And the dance and drama dept don’t have anything between the sizes of MemAud and Pigott. Not every performance can fill MemAud, and not every performance is small enough for Pigott.

    We have space, but whether the space is ACTUALLY usable is another question. Pigott is a nice size, but has no back stage. The Nitery is too small for some performances. Just because you have a stage, it doesn’t mean it’s ideal for a performance. There is more to performance than just a flat usable space. Yes, we have seen performances in EPC, in White Plaza, or in the quad. But how many theatrical spaces are available actually for use? It’s less than you think.

    There ARE steps being made, like the appointment of Prof. Harry Elam as Vice Provost for Undergrad Ed. He is clearly an advocate for the arts on many different levels. We have Sica, the Arts Initiative, and so forth.

    So I wonder, is the issue physical space (considering our campus is… what, the second largest in the world?), money, or a campus-wide appreciate for all forms of the arts from the undergraduates to the administration? We have an arts culture and that is because the Stanford population values the arts. Look at the number of student groups devoted to the arts in the form of Dance, Music, Performance, and Theatre! But the spaces that are available for use… does it reflect the demand? Only those who actually try to perform in these spaces will know for sure.


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