Black Family Visual Arts Center opening attracts community
By Lindsay Ellis, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, September 17, 2012
The Black Family Visual Arts Center opened Friday to speeches by former trustee Leon Black ’73, whose family donated $48 million for the center’s completion, Interim College President Carol Folt, Chair of the Board of Trustees Stephen Mandel ’78 and visual arts faculty.
Rows of folding chairs lined the new Maffei Arts Plaza, and the crowd of hundreds of attendees — including trustees, donors, faculty, architects, students and community members — stretched toward Lebanon Street as Folt dubbed the VAC a “crown jewel” of Dartmouth’s visual arts legacy. The 105,000-square-foot VAC faces the Dartmouth Panels, a work created for the east-facing outer wall of Spaulding Auditorium by American painter, sculptor and printmaker Ellsworth Kelly, who attended the event. The center houses painting and drawing studios, a 50-seat screening room, the 243-seat Loew Auditorium, faculty offices and gallery space. The film and studio art departments moved from various campus locations to the VAC, and classes began in the building last week.
The event’s speakers noted the donors’ generosity and commitment to the College.
“I can say without hesitation that nobody loves Dartmouth more than Leon,” Mandel said. “When we were serving together on the Board, he always brought to the table a wisdom, thoughtfulness and passion for Dartmouth that was unsurpassed.”
Black said he was approached about the VAC by former College President James Wright, who had a “lofty” vision for a center to balance the life sciences initiative already being pursued. He recounted studying and writing papers near the Orozco murals in Baker Library as an undergraduate, recalling the power of the artwork.
In his speech, Mandel praised the work of Jorge Silvetti, who oversaw the work of Machado and Silvetti Associates architecture and urban design firm, which designed the VAC. Studio art professor Colleen Randall also acknowledged the work of project manager Derek Johnson.
Following the outdoor ceremony, those in attendance streamed into the building’s white, three-story atrium to tour the center and observe student work.
“YOU HAVE TO FEEL AT HOME”
Students enrolled in “Sculpture II,” held in the new center, were instructed to build a cardboard structure twice their height. Only due to the VAC’s high ceilings could Chris Magoon ’13, six and a half feet in height, complete the assignment.
“The extra space helped a lot,” he said. “It was giant.”
Magoon said he was amazed to see the VAC’s interior space for the first time.
“In the Hop you have to journey into the basement to find the studio art classes,” he said. “[Here], it’s so open and transparent. It makes you want to do amazing work.”
Bogyi Banovich ’11, a studio art intern who helped departments with the transition to the building, said he initially worried about dirtying the new space before its official opening but now looks forward to “breaking it in.”
Studio art major Luca Molnar ’13 said she was also worried about splattering paint during her first few classes.
“It’s hard not to feel bad about getting paint everywhere,” she said. “But you have to feel at home.”
Increasing artists’ comfort was a priority for the VAC’s architects, according to project director Edwin Goodell. Goodell said designers split the sub-departments into program “neighborhoods” for this reason, concentrating the resources for individual departments and programs in specific areas.
The new, expanded studio space creates a compulsion to produce more work, according to Banovich.
“It needs to get dirty so people won’t be afraid to experiment and push limits of the space and their creativity,” he said.
Improving on features seen in other campus spaces, the building’s technology enables professors to use class periods more effectively, according to film and media studies professor James Brown.
Brown said the additions enable him to easily navigate through VHS tapes and Blu-Ray discs in his 12-person seminar classroom.
“It’s like heaven,” he said. “It’s made the classes move faster. You can do it yourself instead of calling the tech guy.”
Many computers in the VAC are connected to a centralized server, allowing students to access their files on different machines, Brown said. In the old space, filmmakers had to wait for their specific computer to be available.
“Students couldn’t work because two students were on the system, even if six systems weren’t being used,” Brown said. “[Now] you can plug into every room and work, and you can show professors your stuff in their offices.”
SYNERGY AND SPECIALIZATION
Because the VAC houses a number of departments under one roof, collaboration within and across departments will likely occur naturally, Goodell said.
Professors and students from different departments now cross paths more frequently, suggesting a promising future for the arts community, Brown said.
“As a department, we felt a great diaspora,” he said. “It’s finally come to an end in this building.”
Brown said he hopes the College will eventually combine the departments conceptually into a single visual arts major, allowing students to then specialize without declaring separate majors.
Collaboration between departments can benefit each discipline. Students in animation courses, for example, can seek input from studio artists so that both groups understand the techniques and styles of their peers.
The digital humanities lab, which is part of the film department and resides on the building’s second floor, will benefit from the presence of studio art majors, according to digital humanities professor Mary Flanagan. Experimentation across disciplines empowers artists, according to Flanagan, who runs Tiltfactor, a lab that researches, designs and launches games related to technology and human values.
“Many students are very good coming in in a particular discipline, but trying new things outside the discipline is riskier than it should be,” she said. “We want to celebrate risk-taking because that’s where innovation comes from.”
The space itself incorporates innovative design, and each table and chair in the conference rooms is on wheels so that the same space can be used for playing games, writing papers and holding group meetings, she said.
Max Seidman ’12, who has been involved in a Tiltfactor project since June 2011, recently moved into a VAC project room lined with Idea Paint, erasable whiteboard paint on which he can scribble sketches and diagrams.
“Most of this stuff is me branching out,” he said, referring to drawings along the wall. “It’s a big update on our previous lab — now we have prototype space, game space and conference space.”
The VAC’s critique rooms feature expansive walls on which to hang work, creating a clean space in which students can channel their focus onto a single project, according to Molnar.
Film classes employ a studio on the first floor and an upstairs editing room, which improve on the previous space in North Fairbanks Hall, Brown said. Students can walk from the editing rooms into a student lounge to take breaks from their projects.
“People want to relax and decompress, to compare notes,” he said.
VAC architects took the requirements of individual departments into consideration when mapping the departments’ locations, according to Goodell. While students may need to use loud machinery for a building project, for example, film editing often requires silence. As a result, these departments’ respective spaces were separated and isolated with wall constructions, he said.
“We were dealing with a very diverse faculty and building users, who had great ideas and very different goals for the building,” he said. “That, in any project of this complexity, is a challenge, but it led to a building that has an interesting complexity.”
Prior to the start of construction, architects traveled from Boston to Hanover monthly to discuss aspects ranging from furniture choice to ventilation needs with faculty members, Goodell said. These visits became more frequent as the project progressed.
MATERIALS, DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION
The building’s exterior utilizes Norwegian slate, a material previously used only in Norway and chosen to exude “warmth and institutional presence,” Goodell said.
Students said they appreciate the natural light that permeates the building. Molnar’s painting class, held on the building’s top floor, draws natural light into the building via skylight, she said.
While Magoon said his sculpture studio makes use of natural light, some studios for drawing and architecture — which place greater importance on wall space and avoiding stray light — admit light only through slits near the top of the rooms.
Natural light in the Tiltfactor lab is parsed through thin shades to prevent glare on computer screens, according to Flanagan.
The speed with which the building was constructed stood out to Brown, he said. Professors saw the structure’s skeleton last March, and the building acquired layers of sheet rock in May.
“A month ago, I thought, ‘There’s no way it’ll be ready,’” he said, noting that the main atrium’s ceiling was not yet complete in June. “It’s incredible what they’ve done in the last two months.”
“IT’S NEWS IN THE WORLD”
Hopkins Center Director Jeffrey James said the VAC’s opening represents the College’s biggest artistic move in several decades and a natural start to the Year of the Arts.
“It’s news here, and it’s news in the world,” he said. “What Dartmouth does, academically in the arts, is paid a lot of attention to. That was enough reason to have it be a centerpiece of the year.”
The opening of the new center marks a shift in focus toward the arts — often more important to Ivy League institutions located in cities — at Dartmouth, Brown said.
“Dartmouth has supported the arts, but it is a school of the sciences,” he said. “We’ve made another giant leap.”
Departmental transitions have freed space in the Hopkins Center for remaining departments, which will likely use the room as a combination of practice, teaching and rehearsal spaces, as well as visual art galleries, James said.
“We’ve tried to protect one of the founding ideas: that the Hop houses all of the arts under one roof,” he said. “I hope that it is not a change in the spirit of the collaborative sense of the building.”
The new center, as a celebrated part of campus, draws student attention to the arts, according to Flanagan.
“It’s no longer in the attic,” she said. “It’s integrated in a way everyone is proud of.”
Brown, whose office overlooks the Maffei Arts Plaza and Kelly’s Dartmouth Panels, said the project has transformed what used to be a “back alley” of the College that featured a parking lot and Brewster Hall, which housed international students.
Brown said he recalls the initial planning meetings for the VAC, during which film and media studies professor Mark Williams emphasized the need for a new and inspiring structure.
“He said, ‘This should be a really spectacular building — this is going to define the whole south end of the campus,’” Brown said. “And here it is.”