When the engineering programs of a public research university crown the top of U.S. News & World Report ratings, one might assume that the arts would take a backseat to science and mathematics. In the case of the Georgia Institute of Technology, that would be wrong.
“Better than half of our students played an instrument or engaged in arts activities in high school,” says Joseph Bankoff, who is chairman of Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Tech.
And if the 30-plus affinity groups on Tech’s website — everything from barbershop quartets to dance troupes — are any indicator, students are committed to making a place in their lives for the arts while preparing for careers in civil, industrial and aerospace engineering.
Likewise, the extracurricular activities of some of Tech’s faculty — including aerial dancing for one of the mathematicians, and moonlighting as a stand-up comic for another — demonstrate a top-down understanding that the arts and sciences needn’t be an either/or proposition– regardless of one’s chosen field of study.
The question society ought to be asking, suggests Aaron Bobick, School of Interactive Computing professor, is not “Gee, why would Tech be interested in the arts?,” but “How could you imagine a leading technical university not interested in the arts?”
Until very recently, the Ferst Center for the Arts — the auditorium that hosts concerts, lectures, dance, film and theater — was the most high-profile symbol of the university’s connection to the arts. But Bobick and his colleague Gil Weinberg, founding director of the Center for Music Technology, felt the time had come to expand and recast the office that ran the center. In January 2012, they brought their concept to Tech’s provost, Rafael L. Bras.
Bras immediately embraced the idea. He formed the Arts Council (composed of faculty), an external advisory board (Tech alumni and other community leaders) and the Office of the Arts (to organize and execute programs).
“We couldn’t have done this without a strong mandate from the top,” says Sonny Seals, a Tech alum who chairs the advisory board.
A nationwide search for a director of the Office of the Arts was initiated one year later, and this spring Tech announced that Madison Cario, former director of operations and special projects for the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, had been hired to fill it.
Cario is more than just a Marine Corps veteran with undergraduate and advanced degrees in arts in rhetoric and communication, English, environmental science and electrical engineering; she also is a dancer and cofounder of the SCRAP Performance Group with more than two decades of experience in lighting, stage and production design. Clearly, she has a firsthand understanding of the challenges and the joys of working at the intersection of art and technology.
“For a huge part of my life,” she recalls, “parents, friends, professors and guidance counselors kept telling me to pick one discipline . . . preferably something that could pay the bills. So I spent a lot of time trying to choose, then trying to remember who I am and finally putting it all back together.”
Cario’s facility for merging seemingly disparate disciplines and interests made her the ideal candidate to implement Bras’ mandate that “the arts are not to be a passive object of sporadic appreciation, but an omnipresent motivator to the creative juices of our community.”
Seals acknowledges that his alma mater has come a long way since his days as a Yellow Jacket. And he’s grateful for the evolution. “I can safely say we could not spell art in 1965,” he admits, “but the arc of my personal, professional and spiritual life would have been altered substantially had the arts been institutionalized at Tech while I was an undergraduate. I don’t think you can be a complete person without embracing the arts.”
William Schafer, vice president for student affairs, believes that arts serve students in many ways. In addition to providing a break from daily life, the arts can also play into students’ abilities to be creative and innovative in their academics.
Bobick concurs. “The reflective nature of those disciplines will yield better human beings and better informed citizens who can reflect on the world in all aspects and dimensions.”
A self-described matchmaker, Cario wants to “meet students where they are,” whether bringing pop-up performance art to the parking lot of Bobby Dodd Stadium on game day, staging theatrical productions on the basketball court at the Hank McCamish Pavilion or placing pianos in unexpected places on campus “to interrupt business as usual and spark human connection.”
She also wants to connect students to the arts community. She has already reached out to the Goat Farm, MOCA, glo and Dad’s Garage to foster long-term relationships and dialogues with fellow artists and to bring working artists to campus via workshops and master classes as a means of integrating artists at Tech with those beyond the academic setting.
Ultimately, says Cario, her fantasy is to integrate the arts into the fabric and culture of the community so thoroughly that Tech no longer needs an Office of the Arts.
“It can happen!” she declares. “And if it can happen, why not here and why not now?”
Cario welcomes input from anyone at Tech and in the community. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information on the arts at Tech, click here.
Africa Atlanta, a cultural festival, was initiated at Tech.