One of newest campus arts centers, at Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., is commissioning works for performance in its Frank Gehry-designed complex out of a sense of responsibility to its student body and the community at large, according to Bard President Leon Botstein, who also is director of New York's American Symphony Orchestra.
"We don't have a patronage class the way we did with John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Andrew Carnegie," Botstein said in an interview. "And we don't have government funding the way European societies do. So educational institutions have to step into the breach."
The New England Foundation for the Arts, which keeps track of non-governmental arts funding, estimates that more than two dozen universities regularly engage in commissioning artistic works ranging from dance to opera and from theater to chamber music. Some of them, like Bennington College in Vermont, have been in the business for years.
Bennington began by providing studios and performance space for the Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey dance companies in the 1930s and still finances an active arts program. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst also has a long history of commissions that began with theater works by minority playwrights who had difficulty getting their works performed in the commercial theater.
Other universities that have been active in commissioning artists to create new works are the University of California, Ohio State University, Miami-Dade Community College in Florida, the University of Iowa, and the University of Michigan, which collaborated with Columbia University in New York in staging Salman Rushdie's dramatization of his novel "Midnight's Children" last spring.
Michigan and Columbia spent $2 million to bring the Royal Shakespeare Theater's production of Rushdie's play to Ann Arbor, Mich., and to the legendary Apollo Theater in New York's Harlem where it played 12 sold-out performances. The cost of bringing such a show to Broadway would have been five times as much and too risky for most commercial producers to even consider.
Michigan regularly commission three or four new works a year for performance on its campus, usually in partnership with other universities and art centers. Such partnerships, which guarantee a network of performance venues, have helped even well-established performance groups including the Joffrey Ballet and the Mark Morris Dance company, along with largely unrecognized hip-hop companies originating in New York.
The University of Iowa put up $500,000 in production costs for Joffrey's version of "The Nutcracker," about a third of the total cost, and for that it got performances of the work on campus and visits by the dancers with university students and other interested groups in the community.
"This is a uniquely American phenomenon," said Brian McCurdy, director of the new Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of the University of California at Davis.
"There is nowhere else in the world where universities play this role, having major arts centers on campus and being major arts centers for their regions. It's always easy to sell tickets for such established artists as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman, but one of our goals is to try to develop an audience for new artists and new works."
Most universities involved in arts commissioning take the money from the general budgets of their arts centers but they also raise funds from individual patrons of the school and from foundations. The Doris Duke Foundation has been particularly generous to university art programs, and its program director for the arts, Olga Garay, said she thinks universities should be doing even more in the arts field than they are now.
"Granted there are pockets of this sort of activity, but there hasn't been a field-wide acknowledgement of what these universities should aspire to," Garay said.
She noted that activity was generally restricted to universities with spanking new arts centers equipped with the latest production technology. But there are more and more of them being built all the time, and there is reason to be optimistic about the future for aspiring artists and the new works they create, according to others in the field.
"Universities are aesthetically committed to new work in a way that very few commercial presenters are," observed Paul Dresher, artistic director of the Dresher Ensemble, a San Francisco music group that has been the recipient of a number of university commissions.