Notre Dame Now Seeks an Identity in the Arts

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Can the addition of the arts transform the University of Notre Dame into a triple-threat powerhouse?p. Seven years ago, when Daniel J. Saracino arrived here at Notre Dame to run the undergraduate admissions office, he conducted 20 focus groups among top high school students to figure out what they knew about some of the top colleges in the United States. The students were asked to list three things that came immediately to mind about each of a number of schools. And the results about Notre Dame were telling: overwhelmingly the students named Catholicism and football as the first two.

But there was no agreement on anything else that might draw budding adults and scholars to this handsome, orderly campus near the Michigan border in a culturally undistinguished sliver of America known locally as Michiana.

“Our location wasn’t even in the Top 20,” Mr. Saracino said. "Nobody says, ’I’ve always wanted to go to school in northwestern Indiana.’ ’’

And nobody is yet saying that all this is history, either. But late last month, with an inaugural concert by Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Notre Dame christened its Marie P. DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts, a $64 million complex meant to enhance, if not to wholly alter, the profile of the campus and the region.

“This building,” said Louis M. Nanni, a vice president of the university, “will do more to change the university than any built in the last century.”

The center includes a state-of-the-art cinema and four distinct performance spaces, the first new auditoriums for performance on campus since the 19th century. They include a 900-seat concert hall that Mr. Marsalis proclaimed “wonderful” from the stage; a 350-seat theater with a Broadway-size proscenium and a full orchestra pit; a black-box theater; and an unusual 100-seat hall for organ and choral works that has a $1 million handcrafted 2,551-pipe organ suitable for presenting liturgical music.

Already the programming for the next year includes the New York Philharmonic; the Emerson String Quartet; the African musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo; Anne Bogart’s experimental theater, the SITI Company; and the Second City comedy troupe.

The schedule appeals to faculty members and students who in the past have had to travel 90 miles to Chicago for their culture fix, as well as for residents of South Bend, which has never quite returned to prosperity since its homegrown auto manufacturer, the Studebaker Company, went out of business in 1963.

Perhaps more important is the center’s potential as a recruiting tool, drawing donors as well as prospective students and professors. Academically, Notre Dame is most noted for its business school and for its application of ethics to all disciplines. It has never been perceived as strong in the arts, but the new building is geared as much to teaching as it is to presentation. All the performance spaces will be used for instruction and most performances will be student productions. John A. Haynes, the executive director of the center, said he was not expected to operate the center at a profit.

The building also houses part of the music department and a fortified department of film, television and theater, which has 170 students and a 15-member faculty that includes three new posts, two of them including the first endowed chairs in the arts in the university’s history. One chair is held by Peter Holland, a Shakespeare specialist who ran the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, for the University of Birmingham, and who is the new chairman of film, television and theater.

“If we don’t see a real spike in the number of majors in the next few years, we’ll be doing something terribly wrong,” Mr. Holland said. “I can’t imagine students in this field who wouldn’t want to work and study in this building.”

Mr. Saracino said the building wasn’t going to turn Notre Dame into an arts school.

“The fact is that students who want a balanced education will now find Notre Dame a better place,” he said. “What we’re saying is there is more to life here than Catholicism and football.”

As for fund-raising, Mr. Nanni, who oversees development, estimated that “minimally, in the coming few years” the arts center should add $10 million to the school’s endowment fund. For the first time the development office is hiring a fund-raiser to focus on foundations, corporations and individuals who give to the arts.

The evolution of the center’s programming is expected to be interesting. Mr. Haynes, who had directed the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, acknowledged that on a Roman Catholic campus certain presentations – a play that argued for abortion rights, for example – could be risky.

“It would be foolish to do some things here,” Mr. Haynes said. “It would be foolish to do things that are insulting to the Catholic traditions of the university.”

But he also noted that Eve Ensler’s play “The Vagina Monologues” had been performed on campus and that last year Notre Dame held a Queer Film Festival without incident. (There is a gay students’ organization on campus, although it is not officially recognized by the university.)

The idea, he said, is to place artistic performance within the context of education, not advocacy. Presenting Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” he said, does not mean you advocate the homosexual lifestyle, any more than showing Leni Riefenstahl’s film “Triumph of the Will” means you advocate Nazi principles. He said that he would feel comfortable showing both, and he could see each of them being accompanied by panel discussions and lectures about the issues they raise and the artistic accomplishments of their creators.

Given the potential for conflicts, Mr. Haynes said he was frequently asked why he decided to come to Notre Dame.

“You don’t get many chances to be present at the creation of a program of arts at a place that doesn’t have much of a history of it,” he said. “You could never say Notre Dame was legendary in the arts, and why shouldn’t it be? After all the church is one of the greatest arts patrons in human history.”

The Rev. Edward A. Malloy, Notre Dame’s president for the last 18 years, has been the prime mover behind the arts center, which was financed primarily from a $35 million, multipurpose gift from a 1932 graduate, Edward J. DeBartolo, in honor of his late wife. (Mr. DeBartolo, who made his gift in 1990, died in 1994.) Father Malloy is given credit by many on campus for persisting in a quest that he began shortly after he took on the job.

“Early on it became clear to me that we needed to do something dramatic regarding the performing arts,” he said, noting that all student performances had been held in Washington Hall, built in 1881.

Even so, he was often at odds with the university board, which viewed the arts as less of a priority, and some of whose members saddled the project with the sobriquet Malloy’s Folly.

“It’s fair to say that, because of the nature of the project and its scale, others on the board were not as enthusiastic as I,” Father Malloy said.

He said that he did not expect the arts to supplant football, which was responsible, he said, for “an international reputation we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

But he noted with some satisfaction that after the interview, he would be attending a dinner for music students in the stadium press box, followed by a reception for student athletes in the new arts center.

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