Spencer Art Building: a look at its role on the Williams campus

Before Spencer Art building was built in 1996, the art department held residences spread all over campus, from Goodrich to a nook outside of the field house. The new building has allowed the department to become a cohesive segment of the academic community, as opposed to a diffuse group of people pursuing the same goal with little opportunity to play off of each other.

As a result of the new building housing the entire department, the separate disciplines can inspire and be inspired by each other. “The students are watching and learning from each other. They can learn technical things from each other, like how to use a hammer without breaking a thumbnail, but they also learn more conceptual things,” said Guy Hedreen, an associate professor and chair of the art department. “This never happened before because the classes were scattered all over campus….I think it’s had a similar impact on faculty.”

Demonstrating its commitment to the creation of a strong academic tradition in the arts also appears to have paid off in admissions. Williams has always accepted student portfolios in art, but more have been coming in since the inception of the new building.

Fran Lapidus, associate director of admission, acknowledges that this increase in interest could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “We knew as the building became a reality that this would occur,” Lapidus said. “So we encouraged more applicants to send, and, as a result, more applicants sent.” Either way, the building has created a new ethos on campus, a spirit of greater support for the arts, both because of the structure itself, which creates a more visible venue for the arts, and because of the commitment the building represents.

The improvement in portfolios has not only been in quantity, but also in quality. For years, the art department has rated incoming portfolios for admissions. “The quality of portfolios has improved a lot,” says Amy Podmore, an assistant professor of art. “I think it shows a commitment to art. The students that are interested in art, if you don’t have a building that looks active, they’re not going to be that interested. I think the building plays a huge part.”

While the art department is certainly pleased to have improved in size and strength, there is one problem that this creates: because of the growing number of art majors, and because professors are required to accommodate them in their classes, a majority of the students in upper level art classes are majors. Podmore says that this movement seems “against the idea of liberal arts…. We’ve grown, but it seems that the demand keeps growing.” Because of the increase in the number of majors – from seven or eight a few years ago to over 20 today – the department has felt “a crunch that’s good,” says Podmore, “but has its negative points.”

Despite this crunch that results from the growing pains of a newly expanded department, new facilities do “have an effect on the entire campus, because many students come to Williams wanting to do things outside of their major,” says Lapidus. “It only makes it more enriching for them to come here. Any new facility is a boon to admissions.”

In building new facilities, Williams runs the risk of over-specialization, where students would only be attracted to do one thing. However, these facilities also illustrate the diversity of interests on campus by “sending a signal that our community is interested in each of these activities,” says Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College.

In the wake of the proposal for a new performing arts center on campus, plans for which are still up in the air, I cannot help but wonder if the effects we saw from the creation of the Spencer Art Studio will soon be evident. Perhaps we will see an increase in students interested in performance, thus strengthening the department. Commingling the performing arts in a specific space could lead to new, interesting amalgamations of dance and theater, new technical designs, and other things we might not foresee. If the same organizational thought is put into the department itself as must be put into the planning of a building, we could see the same inspirational feedback andthe same increase of community interest occurring in the performing arts as we have seen in the visual arts.

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