In an age of big data and STEM, isn’t a liberal arts degree just a pricey luxury? Some current and former Republican governors have suggested defunding the liberal arts at public colleges and universities. (Has anyone ever explained to them that “liberal” in this case doesn’t mean the opposite of “conservative”?) Some universities, responding to budget cuts, are eliminating certain liberal arts majors.
Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts is about to launch a yearlong 150th-anniversary celebration. With 31 departments, more than 520 professors and 15,000 students, it’s the largest college in the U of M system, and it plans to stay around at least another 150 years.
In the words of CLA Dean John Coleman, “The liberal arts are all over the front page of your newspaper. Economic policy, institutional debates, policies about achievement gap, health care access and quality, environmental issues – we study all of these in the college. We’re not a frill off to the side that you do after the serious stuff. We are the serious stuff.”
The anniversary festivities will begin tomorrow (Wednesday, Sept. 12) with the opening of “On Purpose: Portrait of the Liberal Arts” at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery. A show of 60 large-scale portraits by Mexico City-born photographer and CLA MFA Xavier Tavera, it’s an interesting choice for an anniversary statement. “We’re in a very image-rich world,” Coleman said Friday at a preview. “A lot of times, in our academic work, it’s more writing, less image. This is a very creative way to portray the liberal arts.”
It’s the people, people. Faculty and students, diverse in age, gender and ethnicity. “I believe that portraiture is of the most importance right now, in this time,” Tavera said. “The person, and the humanity we’re getting so detached from.”
Tavera sees the portraits as a series of conversations – between the individual portraits facing each other in the gallery, and between us and them as we stop to consider them. “The portraits I take are formal,” Tavera said. “All are looking directly at the camera. Hopefully, the camera disappears, and when you approach them, you’re talking to them.
Commenting on his portrait of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Dominick Argento, who represents the music department, Tavera noted that the image captured precisely 1/120th of a second of Argento’s life. “But if you look at his eyes, you can have a conversation with him.”
Why should non-CLA people come to see this show? “They’ll get a great sense of the depth of the work that’s done here,” Coleman said. “They’ll get a sense of the power of the inquiry and its relevance. I look around and see the deep dignity of the people in the photos. This is deeply moving to me.”
It was to us, too. Tavera’s beautiful portraits are worth whatever time you can spend on them. There’s humor and wit, seriousness and playfulness, the dignity Coleman mentioned, and a shared sense of pride. These are proud, determined, learned and learning people, whether they’re representing Economics, Art History, or African American & African Studies; Economics, Philosophy, or Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences; Psychology, English, the Institute of Global Studies or the Human Rights Program. Or any of the many other CLA departments, programs, centers and institutes. If you go, look for the portrait of the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World. Whatever they’re studying looks like too much fun.
A brief aside about the Department of African American & African Studies portrait: The four people pictured are John Wright, Agnes Schaffauser, Yuichiro Onishi and Abou-Bakar Mamah. They’re standing in front of Morrill Hall. The department was the direct result of student activism and protests in the 1960s that culminated in what’s known as the Morrill Hall Takeover. Wright was there then, and he’s here now, part of an eclectic community of scholars.
“On Purpose: Portrait of the Liberal Arts” will open to the public on Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 11 a.m., when the Nash Gallery reopens after summer break. On Thursday, Sept. 13, photographer Xavier Tavera will give an artist talk there. Doors at 5:30 p.m., reception from 6-8. Free. A catalog of the exhibition ($18) will be available at the artist talk (where you can have Tavera sign it) and also at the University Bookstore. FMI.
Wednesday at the Trylon: “Records Collecting Dust II.” Presented by Sound Unseen, which brings us movies about music year-round and the annual Sound Unseen Film + Music Festival (coming up Nov. 14-18), this film focuses in the 1980s hardcore punk rock scene in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. Influential people who were there talk about the music, the bands and the records that changed their lives. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10 advance, $12 door).
Thursday at Jazz Central Studios: Kind Folk “Why Not” CD release. Starting with “Strength and Song” in 2012, Minneapolis native John Raymond has recorded five ever-finer albums including a few with “Real Feels,” his bassless trio, and one called “Foreign Territory.” A trumpeter, flugelhornist and composer now on faculty at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, Raymond sure knows how to pick musicians to play with. Pianists Gerald Clayton and Dan Tepfer, guitarist Gilad Hekselman and legendary drummer Billy Hart have all performed and recorded with him. Raymond’s latest group is a quartet called Kind Folk, named for a beautiful tune by Kenny Wheeler. This time: no keys. Joining him are the excellent drummer Colin Stranahan (also of Real Feels), bassist Noam Wiesenberg and saxophonist Alex LoRe. Their debut album will be officially released on Friday, Sept. 14. We’ll get the hometown early listen. Shows at 7 and 9 p.m. $15 door, $10 with student ID. FMI.
Thursday at Fairview Community Center in Roseville: Jonathan Slaght: “From Giant Owls to Striped Cats: Endangered Species Conservation in the Russian Far East.” A wildlife conservationist, author, blogger, photographer and one of the world’s leading experts on Blakiston’s fish owls (hint: they’re big), Slaght lives in the Twin Cities but spends part of each year in Russia’s Far East, tracking tigers, leopards, owls and musk deer. He’ll have rare film to show, taken in a place you’ll probably never see. Social time at 6:45, program at 7. Free.
Friday at the O’Shaughnessy: The Wailin’ Jennys. Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and Heather Masse haven’t made an album together for six years. (They took a break to have kids.) If possible, their close harmonies are even closer and their voices even sweeter. Their latest, “Fifteen,” begins with a spare, haunting version of “Old Church,” sung and near-whispered over a single viola drone, then throws the windows open to the sun with a cover of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers.” Plus there’s a sassy, mom-centric version of Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock.” A Woman of Substance event. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($23-57).
Opens Friday at the Pillsbury House Theatre: “West of Central.” Christina Ham’s new play is a noir set in 1966, not long after the Watts Riots. Austene Van is Thelma Higgins, the sharpest black P.I. in L.A., and Harry Waters Jr. is her husband. A tale of deceit, corruption, and backroom deals unfolds among racial tensions. Also in the cast: Aimee K. Bryant, Brian Grandison, Theo Langason, Olivia Wilusz and Stephen Yoakam. Hayley Finn is the director. Ham is a core writer at the Playwrights’ Center and a Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence at Pillsbury House. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets (pick-your-price $5-25). Ends Oct. 14.