Dean Grant: School of Fine Arts Brings Balance to University Life

Brid Grant, dean of fine arts, sits at a Steinway grand piano on the stage of von der Mehden Recital Hall. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Brid Grant, dean of fine arts, sits at a Steinway grand piano on the stage of von der Mehden Recital Hall. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Brid Grant began her tenure as the dean of the School of Fine Arts in August 2012, after serving as dean and director of the Dublin Institute of Technology’s College of Arts and Tourism. A pianist by training, she began her academic career as a senior lecturer in piano and academic studies before moving into administration. She spoke with UConn Today about her arrival in Storrs and her plans for the School of Fine Arts.

You had a much different responsibility in your previous position at the Dublin Institute of Technology. What was your attraction to UConn?

When I was director and dean of the College of Arts and Tourism in the Dublin Institute of Technology, we developed a relationship with the UConn Music Department, in particular, the Opera Program. I had been over here in 2005 with a number of students from Dublin. A few years later, UConn music students came over to Ireland, where we collaborated on an opera scenes project and conducted master classes for voice students from both schools. Being able to focus exclusively on the arts, here at UConn, appealed to me greatly, and I was also very interested to experience a different culture. The weather here was also very appealing; there are proper seasons here. Ireland, although very beautiful, can be a very rainy place!

Are there many adjustments you have experienced since your arrival?

It’s been fascinating for me learning how the University here operates. Some of the structures are different – and that has been an interesting learning curve. But basic things like language can be quite different, too. For example, what I would refer to as “staff” is known here as “faculty.” One can carry on a dialogue and not quite connect with the other person, simply because of subtle differences in the language, or slightly different interpretations of meaning between here and in Ireland or Europe. I didn’t expect to have to think so much about that. And of course simple things, like having to drive on the wrong side of the road!

You have started some new initiatives aimed at collaboration with the School and promoting the School. What are they?

I have seen that people are doing wonderful work, but as happens everywhere, people get immersed in their own work and they often tend not to look outside. At the instigation of the faculty, we have set up a collaboration forum. We have an open meeting once a month with faculty and staff and, basically, anybody else who wants to come along. Several innovative ideas have come out of that process, and one of them is to hold a “brown bag lunch” once a month to showcase the work of students. We’re going to invite faculty, staff, and students from across the campus – everyone will be welcome. We’ve also started a student-generated movement called “We Art Together.” The concept behind this is to highlight and showcase, through social media events, what we do, whoever is putting on events, and what the inspiration is for them. For example, art students might go over to the Student Union or the Engineering building and do their drawing, or music students might have a pop-up concert in an area where you wouldn’t normally hear music. The whole purpose is to attract attention to the School of Fine Arts and to get people to fully understand the complexity of what we do here and the uniqueness of what we offer.

With the emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs, how do you see the School of Fine Arts competing for students?

In any university you need a balance. You need to have the creative side. When people have long left universities you will find them going to concerts, art galleries, museums, and plays. I believe everybody needs that kind of balance in their lives, so I’m sincerely hoping that with the new STEM initiatives, which I think are really exciting for the University and a huge opportunity for us, that we’re going to keep a balanced emphasis on the arts as well. That does include putting funding into the resources that we need in order to develop. The President and the Provost are two very enlightened people who really appreciate the arts. I’ve been delighted to see that both the President and the Provost come to almost all of our bigger productions, which, to me, is a huge endorsement of what we’re doing. If people do not come to see what we’re doing, they can’t understand or appreciate it, or the value that it brings to the University.

How can an arts education prepare students to enter a career in today’s global economy?

Traditionally, we’ve been heavily biased towards Western music and art. It’s not that we’ve been excluding all non-western music or all non-western arts. But that’s what is changing at the moment; providing an emphasis so that people begin to understand and appreciate different cultures, and how the arts fit into all of those different cultures. Across the University there is great support for that. We’re working with Dan Weiner, vice provost for global affairs; we’re working with the Human Rights Institute; we’re working with the Puerto Rican and Latin American Cultural Center. We’re using the collective wisdom that’s available here at UConn to develop a program that will be relevant for people either in their work or indeed in their social/recreational life when they leave the University.

Professor Harvey Felder of the music faculty has written about the challenge of generational diversity in the arts, of today’s students being so connected to technology that they don’t attend events to experience live performances. How can the University address that issue?

That is a huge issue for everybody. It is the fight to try to engage people. You cannot, any longer, expect people to go to a symphony orchestra and sit quietly for an hour and a half or so, and not interact. One of the things that Harvey does and [choral director] Jamie Spillane is doing is to interact with the audience. You provide some incentive beforehand either by way of going into the schools, giving them an educational background on what you’re doing, inviting them to come in, and slowly start building your audience. You can’t expect people to feel comfortable listening to something which they know nothing about. You have to provide education about what you’re doing in a very palatable, presentable way. That’s one of the things we’re working on and that we need to develop over the next couple of years.

When you were in Dublin you introduced programs to go beyond what is normally taught in the music school, specifically a degree in Commercial Modern Music. Are there similar programs you might consider at UConn?

The main reason I brought that program to Dublin was the huge demand for it. Every second young person in Dublin owns a guitar or is a songwriter. I don’t know whether that’s the U2 [an Irish rock band from Dublin] influence or not. In the 18th century, what Mozart was writing was the popular music at the time and we need to be very aware of what young people are listening to right now. I developed the program there because I could see a real need for it, following on from the secondary school curriculum which is very much focused on songwriting and contemporary rock. I haven’t yet got the sense that there’s a huge appetite for it here, but it’s certainly something that I could imagine would work very well. I’m very keen to do an academic review of all our programs and courses to ensure that they are relevant in preparing our students for life after university. I think out of a review will come some clarity on new areas we need to be developing. An area that I would love to develop is dance, because I think it’s the one we have been missing. I believe there could be a big demand for a program in musical theater and dance. But again, I need to look around to explore and make sure we’re not trying to duplicate what somebody else is doing. I think the success of the School of Fine Arts here, particularly in the current economic climate, is going to be about developing niche areas. The potential is huge and exciting. There’s so much we could do. We’ve got to be sure that we focus on the areas of study that are going to enhance our reputation and be most beneficial to our students in the next 10 or 15 years.