Arts and Innovation: Another Gift That Illustrates a New Trend in Campus Funding

Slowly but surely, donors are beginning to acknowledge that the liberal arts and STEM fields can not only peacefully coexist, but actually complement each other to create a richer educational experience. (I have no doubt many of these donors are loyal IP readers.)

For further evidence of the unfolding epiphany, we turn to Atlanta, where Spelman College received a $1 million gift from Leonard and Louise Riggio. Half of the gift will support the college’s planned arts and innovation center. The other half will underwrite the Riggio Scholars Program, recognizing six students who have demonstrated stellar academic achievement and who are actively engaged in community service.

I'd like us to focus on the gift's former component.

"Arts and innovation center" is a pretty broad term, so it can be difficult to gauge what, precisely, will go on inside its walls. For example, I recently looked at the University of North Carolina's planned Institute for Performance Innovation, made possible by a $10 million anonymous donation. Turns out that the building will support things like gaming, animatronics, and virtual reality filmmaking. Who knew?

The proposed Spelman center holds similar surprises. According to the school, the new state-of-the-art center will house the Innovation Lab, which will "encourage creative collaborations at the intersection of the arts, technology, science and other liberal arts disciplines."

The inclusion of words "technology" and "science" may seem innocuous, but it's actually important. We've covered many gifts earmarked for campus "arts centers" across the past 24 months, and most of them primarily focus on the visual arts or the performing arts. Few of these gifts delve into the ones-and-zeros world of STEM education.

Yet a more cross-disciplinary approach has been around for quite a while. For example, we looked at MIT's Center for Art, Science and Technology, which '"promotes research, teaching, and programming at the intersections of art, science, and engineering" over two years ago. (Then again, it's MIT. By definition they're supposed to be ahead of the curve.)

My point? While the idea has been germinating for a while, the Spelman gifts suggest that the cross-disciplinary model is slowly gaining traction. Coincidentally, I recently looked at Facebook billionaire Jeffrey Rothschild's donation of $20 million to support Vanderbilt University's residential colleges program. The intention? To "bring engineers together with history majors with artists to live side by side."

Which brings me to Leonard and Louise Riggio. Leonard served as executive chairman of Barnes & Noble and has been its largest shareholder since purchasing the company in 1971.

The couple's philanthropic work involves numerous higher education institutions, including funding the Writing and Democracy Program at the New School. The Riggios were instrumental in the building of Beacon, New York's Dia:Beacon, one of the largest contemporary art museums in the world, and have served as benefactors for an array of public art initiatives including Chinati, the Spiral Getty, and Michael Heizer’s City Project.

And now for the "cliffhanger" element of this post: Riggio and his wife have amassed an impressive collection of highly valuable postwar and contemporary art. Leonard retired earlier this year, and in an August interview with ArtNews, expounded on his plans during his Golden Years.

In short, it has less to do with selling books than it does collecting art and art philanthropy. "What I’m gonna want to do is spend more time and thought on public art,” he said. "So we’ll give the works, and we’ll give the money to build the building, so the art can be seen in its best light. That’s kind of my passion."