This Place Hums with Artistic Energy

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

Each year at Parents’ Weekend, one of my favorite events is the question-and-answer session during which parents get to ask me about whatever is on their minds. I do my “homework” before the session, but there are always a few questions I cannot anticipate. When a parent once asked why we did not have a single potter’s wheel on campus and what I intended to do about that, I was a little bewildered. We have Nobel Prize-winning faculty, unparalleled classroom and research opportunities for undergraduates, top-notch graduate programs—but we’re lacking potter’s wheels? I mumbled something about a shortage of studio art space, which is true, and quickly moved on to the next question.

Although the question seemed a little unusual at the time, upon further reflection, I thought it was an entirely appropriate and logical inquiry. From the very beginning, the arts have been an important component of this University of “high degree.” In fact, Jane and Leland Stanford were originally considering establishing either a museum or a university as a memorial to their son. Harvard’s President Eliot, with whom the Stanfords consulted, indicated that a university would be best.

A museum, however, remained prominent in their plans for the new University. Over the years, the Stanfords had collected paintings, sculpture, works of decorative art and photographs on their journeys. The Stanfords recognized that the opportunity to enjoy and critically examine art was essential to the humanistic training of young adults and to the perpetuation of civilized society. More than a century has passed and much has changed on the Farm, but the arts—from the formal presentation of traditional artworks to the performing arts and studio work—remain a central part of a Stanford education.

Standing at the corner of that broad universe is the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts. The museum has endured despite two major earthquakes and periods of limited resources. Since its renovation and expansion after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the center has emerged as one of the University’s great assets. The expansion has enabled the museum to attract interesting traveling exhibitions. Each year, thousands of local residents and tourists visit the museum to sample its permanent and visiting collections—including the largest collection of Rodin sculpture outside Paris.

The museum is only one aspect of our students’ educational relationship with the arts, which often is reflected in a personal commitment to the performing arts. The most enduring example of this is the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, a collection of 90 student musicians established in 1891. Despite having a minority of music majors, the orchestra is highly regarded and has made several international appearances in recent years—including tours in China, Eastern Europe and East Asia. Like the symphony, the Stanford Chamber Chorale builds on the diverse talents of our students. If you have not heard the chorale, please take advantage of the opportunity at an upcoming reunion or Alumni Day event.

Scores of other performing arts groups flourish at Stanford—among them the Savoyards theater group, the Ballet Folklorico troupe, the Stanford Jazz Orchestra, the Taiko drumming ensemble and, of course, Stanford’s myriad a cappella groups. In many instances, students serve as performers, organizers and artistic directors.

The arts enrich campus life, adding complexity and beauty, and helping us contemplate matters that are beyond our usual educational or work environment. On some weekends the Farm seems to vibrate from the energy generated by various dance performances, plays, poetry slams and music jams. Just as the museum holds treasures that are shared by our neighbors, these student productions—along with the first-rate offerings of Stanford’s Lively Arts program—are largely available to residents of surrounding communities.

Next spring, the Cantor Center will host a show exhibiting art from collections of Stanford alumni and friends. In the preface of the catalog for that show, I noted Marcel Proust’s words in his Maxims, written around the same time as the museum’s founding: “Only through art can we get outside of ourselves and know another’s view of the universe which is not the same as ours and see landscapes which would otherwise have remained unknown to us like the landscapes of the moon.”

At Stanford, we must remember Proust’s admonition, especially in difficult economic times. Art gives both meaning and beauty to the pursuit of knowledge, which lies at the heart of this University.

P.S. We determined that a potter’s wheel resided once in the basement of Stern Hall and that it resurfaced at Chi Theta Chi. We continue our efforts to track it down so I can report on its whereabouts at the next Parents’ Weekend!