Can STEM-Inspired "Creative Research" Make the Arts More Impactful?

Back in February, the New York Times published an article entitled "A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding."

For those of us audacious enough who believe the liberal arts still have a role in higher education, the article was a kick in the gut. "Frustrated by soaring tuition costs, crushing student loan debt and a lack of skilled workers, particularly in science and technology," the article explained, "more and more states have adopted the idea of rewarding public colleges and universities for churning out students educated in fields seen as important to the economy."

For today's purposes we won't launch into a philosophical debate on the value of arts, nor will we wade into the politically-charged waters surrounding things like student debt, the role of government in public education, or whether a graduate in French literature is "important to the economy."

Instead, we'd like to take a closer look at how foundations are reacting to this shift in conventional thinking, because no matter how much proponents of the liberal arts kick and scream, this is the new reality. Is a liberal arts education valuable? What's the point of the performing arts versus saving lives? These are the big questions permeating both higher education and the arts philanthropy world.

One foundation that's been hip to this shift for some time is, of course, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. And recent news out of Seattle suggests that the foundation's big vision for the humanities and the performing arts has a distinct "if you can't beat'em, join'em" component to it. But before we delve into the commentary, let's first look at the gift itself.

Mellon awarded a $750,000 grant to the University of Washington to pilot a new "Creative Fellowships Initiative" that will explore the nature of "creative research" at the school. According to Mellon, the interdisciplinary initiative will "advance the field of performing arts by supporting artists in the development of new work and by integrating the performing arts disciplines into the broader curriculum." Recruitment of fellows is in process, with the first of the guest artists starting their fellowships in fall 2016.

And here's where it gets interesting. A closer look at the Mellon's announcement reveals words like "research," "innovation," "incubation," and "laboratory work" to describe the initiative, which, among other things, will support exploration by guest artists in the fields of dance, theater, and music through one- to three-year residencies, commissions, collaborations, and performances.

These aren't words we normally associate with the performing arts — and that's exactly the point.

"In the STEM world we inhabit, research and innovation are seen as the domain of the sciences and technology, even as the values of art — creativity, collaboration and imaginative engagement with the unknown — are prized," said Todd London, the University's School of Drama executive director/professor. In other words, Mellon seems to be arguing that the "STEM vs liberal arts" argument is a reductive one. It needn't be a zero-sum game. Each field can learn from the other.

And so UM's Creative Fellowships Initiative openly adopts the teaching principles from the STEM field; as a result, this idea of "creative research" help shape the future of the humanities and the performing arts, making them more relevant, collaborative, and integrative.

"We are deeply honored by Mellon's partnership in providing opportunities for artists, faculty and students to engage in rigorous creative research," said UW World Series executive and artistic director Michelle Witt. "This important work will connect the arts, sciences and humanities in a shared process of discovery to advance the performing arts in our society."