Ongoing Inspiration: CLEA Conference 2000

Greta Berman, Jon Esser, Ron Levy

CLEA: Consortium for the Liberal Education of Artists

Here's a simple recipe for something magical: take a group of artists and educators with an unusual (and an unusually passionate) sense of mission, bring them to the exotic conference facilities of The Howard Gilman Foundation's White Oak Plantation in Florida, mix well. Then stand back to see what happens.

When this recipe was followed in late October of last year it proved impossible for anyone to simply stand back as an observer. The fourth biennial conference of the Consortium for the Liberal Education of Artists (CLEA) was propelled by a kind of synergetic dynamism which only idealism can foster, and all conference participants — artists, art students, arts school faculty, and administrators — seemed to be riding on adrenaline for three days of exchange, rooted in common purpose. CLEA's uniqueness explains why.

The Consortium for the Liberal Education of Artists is a grass-roots organization initiated and administered by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts. Some eight years ago, then Dean of General Studies at the North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA), Bill Tribby, conceived of convening a working group of conservatories and schools of art. He believed that the challenges and opportunities he faced providing a liberal arts education to aspiring artists were not unique to NCSA and that much could be gained from a national dialogue. Tribby didn't have to go far for the support he needed. The Kenan Institute, affiliated with NCSA in Winston-Salem, allowed him to run with his idea, leading to the first CLEA conference in 1994. “We recognized something unique in what Bill proposed,” Jeanne Butler, executive director of the Kenan Institute, explains. “Arts education receives a lot more attention than artists' education. At that first conference we saw something blossom, something that could have a meaningful impact on a whole new generation of artists. It's been rewarding to watch CLEA evolve, to see the results of its work, and to engage other funding partners.”

The group now comprises thirteen institutions, representative schools from across the country whose sole mission is the training of performing and visual artists. The sweep of CLEA schools includes both high profile institutions (the Juilliard School) and lesser known gems (Miami's New World School of the Arts); it includes schools focused on a single art form (The New England Conservatory) and schools training artists in varied media (Philadelphia's University of the Arts). The diverse profiles of its members greatly enrich the Consortium's efforts to “promote the goals of liberal learning in institutions dedicated to the training of professional artists,” the core of its statement of mission. The Consortium seeks to assure the broader education of young artists, awakening them to their social as well as artistic responsibilities, their rich cultural heritage as well as their challenge to become leaders and visionaries in their communities. This is a tall order, but as Gerry Hecht, faculty member of the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College of the State University of New York explains, “at CLEA schools, this is what our liberal arts programs are about. We recognize the significant role of a general education to artists confronting a dynamic environment which more often than not will call on their collateral skills.”

What drives CLEA, and what explains the palpable enthusiasm at its conferences, are projects that funnel high idealism into hands-on experiences for art students across the country. During alternate years when there are no conferences, with support from the Kenan Institute and the Gilman Foundation, as well as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Consortium has spawned a range of curricular-based projects proposed by its member schools. CLEA-funded projects have suggested possibilities for integrating studio and classroom, explored common themes across a variety of media and disciplines, and integrated young artists with community. At the October conference at White Oak two CLEA projects were showcased — the “Community Connections” project of the Tisch School of New York University and “CalArts Northeast,” a program of the California Institute of the Arts.

“Community Connections” provides a window into CLEA's efforts, and it speaks wonders about the consortium, its goals, and its potentials. Rayne Roberts, a recent graduate of the photography program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts (TSOA), presented her part of the “Community Connections” program, involving an East Harlem community. (For information on TSOA initiatives involving art and community, see Roberts worked with low-income African-American and Latino elementary school students at Washington Houses Community Center, an after-school program. To encourage conversation on the experience of family, Roberts asked these students to take photographs of themselves and their close relatives. These photographs were then compiled into books, often with accompanying texts written by the young photographers. Each student kept a copy of his or her book, further validating their accomplishments. The rewards Roberts discovered through teaching were multiple: the students at the community center found a new voice through their autobiographical books, and Roberts had found a way of using her photographic art to raise the self-esteem within this group of young people.

The reaction of Tisch's Rayne Roberts typifies the experience of arts students benefiting from CLEA projects elsewhere. In October, those at White Oak also heard from recent graduates of the MFA Writing Program of CalArts who participated in another CLEA project called “CalArts Northeast.” These students had spent an intense month the previous spring meeting with writers, poets, and theater artists in New York City. They sought to assess what “artistic freedom” really means to those in the thick of the professional art world. Through encounters with a variety of artists at different stages of their careers, the CalArts students were challenged to sort through the web of opportunities and constraints imposed by market forces, cultural policy, and a host of political realities. This was an eye-opener for these young writers, and it showed in their White Oak presentation.

Another unique aspect of CLEA conferences is that participants actually practice the techniques that are presented, rather than merely comment on them. An experiential creative writing workshop led by Jason Brown and Wendy Barnes, two creative writing MFA students from CalArts, had participants writing, quite literally, from different points of view. The group met around a dining room table and, for each writing assignment, participants were required to get up, move around the table, and take a new seat. The experience of place informed the writing, thus engaging the kinetic sense. At one point a participant found himself writing to his children from the head of the table. Having sat in “their chairs” earlier, he was all the more conscious of his role as parent.

CLEA's previous conference, in 1998, highlighted two other CLEA-funded projects at member schools. Philadelphia's University of the Arts reported on a program that provided writing instruction to students in studio courses. The project led to studio faculty endorsing writing projects as an essential part of their studio teaching — a program that the University of the Arts curriculum has now embraced. The Peabody Conservatory (a division of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University) recounted its own experiences, describing the successes of a new course funded through CLEA. Entitled “Art and Audience,” this course engaged young musicians in a dialogue with museum curators, theater professionals, and visual artists (among others) to probe shared concerns and challenges at the cusp of a new century. All of these CLEA-supported projects explore possibilities and alternatives while offering transferable lessons to other consortium schools. This well serves CLEA's intention to make a difference in the training of artists nationwide.

Despite CLEA's youth as an organization, its impact has already been profoundly felt. Kim MacKay, of the Humanities and Sciences program at Cornish College in Seattle, explained that the Consortium for the Liberal Education of Artists has prompted major restructuring at his school. Seeking ways to better integrate the arts and the liberal arts in its curriculum, Cornish was in the process of redesigning its general studies program when the Consortium agreed to place its new curricular plans at the core of CLEA's 1998 conference. As MacKay describes it, “the 1998 CLEA conference gave us at Cornish an amazing opportunity to have major curriculum changes reviewed and critiqued in their early stages by the true experts in the field — those who teach the general studies courses in arts colleges, as well as our colleagues in the arts, those who best know how humanities and science classes feed the work their students do in the studio.”

That was the first part. In 1999 Cornish was awarded a Consortium grant to nurture the new ideas and thinking spawned by Consortium members' suggestions. “The grant we received from CLEA,” McKay explains, “permitted us to take those plans the next step — into the classroom — and keep the momentum for change alive and expanding.” At White Oak last October, yet another discussion session “provided, once again, a kind of reaffirmation of the changes we are in the midst of making. CLEA's critical response and enthusiastic support combine to become a truly unique resource — critical support — that makes the changes we are making that much richer and more likely of success.”

CLEA is far from offering anything like accreditation, but its role as a consultative body of colleagues from peer institutions is already an important one. As it works to sustain and expand the circles of its conversation, the group remains small, proceeding slowly to augment its membership with perspectives that will best enrich the mix. (The College of Santa Fe and Columbia College Chicago are its newest members). This ensures that its conferences remain intimate: with a maximum of forty-five participants, everyone gets to know everyone, something of vital importance to CLEA's success. Virginia Red, provost of the University of the Arts, was at White Oak last fall for her first CLEA conference. “What truly distinguishes this conference is the fact that all members of this small group participate fully in all sessions,” she recalls, “and thereby develop an esprit de corps that builds trust. That, in turn, encourages the participants to be honest among themselves, to probe and question deeply, and most important, to take risks when they return home. At least that is what happened to me.” Her experience is widely shared, and well characterizes the magic emanating from White Oak.

Greta Berman is a member of the Liberal Arts Department of the Juilliard School. Jon Esser is assistant dean of Art+Design at Purchase College of the State University of New York. Ron Levy is chair of the Humanities Department at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.

Arts grantmakers who plan to attend GIA's 2001 conference can learn more about CLEA at a session highlighting some of the young artists who participate in its programs. For further information relating to CLEA, its projects, and its conferences contact CLEA[at]