Breadth and Depth: One Donor's Vision for a (More or Less) Mandatory Arts Experience

Many of the liberal arts gifts we've recently seen across the months adhere to a "depth, not breadth" philosophy. That is, the money's mostly concentrated on either a single or a small set of goals. Precision is the key.

For example, Fort Worth oil and gas investor Bobby Patton Jr. and his wife Sherri gave $20 million to support faculty and graduate student endowments in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Mellon Foundation, meanwhile, awarded Colby College a $800,000 grant earmarked for the "development of a campus-wide multidisciplinary initiative in environmental humanities" that includes a partnership with the college's esteemed Environmental Studies Program.

Then there's Keith L. and Katherine Sachs $15 million gift to the University of Pennsylvania. I'd humbly argue that the gift tilts heavily towards the "breadth" end of the spectrum (albeit with plenty of depth as well). The expansive gift, which also happens to be largest gift targeted toward the arts in the school's history, will be used to develop innovative programs in the arts. Specifically, we're looking at new courses, workshops, and master classes, plus artistic productions and public art spaces, and, not to be outdone, new collaborations in the arts across Penn's West Philadelphia campus. Oh, and they may add an artists in residence into the mix down the road.

An executive director will be hired to administer the initiative, called the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation. The program hub will be at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Add it all up, and it's almost as if they're building out an entire arts ecosystem whose foundations were laid by donors like — you guessed it — Keith L. and Katherine Sachs.

Sachs, a 1967 Penn graduate, is the former CEO of Saxco International, a packaging company.  He and his wife have supported the arts at Penn for more than a decade, including funding several professorships and a guest curator program at the Institute of Contemporary Art. As previously noted, Sachs is also a trustee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Katherine, meanwhile, is an adjunct curator at the Art Museum for many years, is a 1969 Penn grad and an emeritus member of the university's board of trustees. "We believe strongly that the arts are essential to the core mission of education," Keith Sachs said.

To that end, the vast-reaching program will infuse the arts in education across all 12 schools, no matter what major a student is in, according to provost Vincent Price. The whole "breadth" approach was clearly intentional — and an important point to underscore. As we've noted repeatedly here at IP, the conventional wisdom is beginning, at long last, to acknowledge that the liberal arts and the STEM skill set aren't mutually incompatible. If anything, they can complement each other. Penn and its expansive plan clearly understand this.

So let's let Price have the last word. "The aim here is to advance our educational programs and to reach out to students across the campus, who might not ordinarily think of the arts as part of their educational program," he said.