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Higher education can stimulate next Harlem-like renaissance, NYU art school dean says

Colleges and universities in or near urban communities can do more to facilitate a revitalization of the arts and culture in those communities, according to an educator who witnessed such a renaissance first-hand.
Campbell (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, found herself in the middle of such a rising in the late 1970s at the Studio Museum of Harlem. Once a rundown storefront above a liquor store and fast-food restaurant, the Studio Museum now is a 60,000-square-foot facility regarded as the principal center for the study of African and African-American art.

"Twenty-five years ago, Harlem was in ruins. Those were days when urban life in our country in general was under siege and New York was one of the most distressed cities," Campbell, who became executive director of the Studio Museum in 1977, said during a recent speech. "But I knew the depths of undiscovered artistic and cultural treasures waiting to be discoveredthe real promise of a place like the Studio Museum."

The contribution of higher education was small during the rebirth of Harlem, Campbell said. Nearby Columbia University played no role at the time in "helping to revive something that had a great and wonderful past," she said. Instead, through an act of extraordinary civic cooperation involving financiers, union leaders, philanthropists and private citizens, she said, "an urban miracle took place."

Campbell delivered the keynote address, "Harlem: A Parable of Culture's Urban Perils and Promises,"

Nov. 4 as part of the national conference, "Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life," hosted by U-M. The conference was the cornerstone of a 10-day series of events hosted by the University collectively titled, "Building the Engaged University: Inspiration and Challenge."

Stuart Parnes on bass and Cade Sperlich on piano perform Nov. 4 at The Neutral Zone teen center in Ann Arbor. Parnes and Sperlich, along with saxaphone player Caleb Curtis (not pictured) are members of 240 Jazz Ensemble and are students at Ann ArborÍs Community High School. The trio performed at a reception for the Imagining America national conference hosted by U-M. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

Imagining America, founded and based at U-M, is an alliance dedicated to putting cultural work in the public interest at the heart of American higher education and community life. The conference stressed the daily practice of democracy where higher education, public life and the arts and humanities converge.

While Columbia and other universities and colleges in New York since have become more involved in the resurgence of Harlem, Campbell said more could be done nationwide to create a beneficial relationship between the arts, cultural institutions and institutions of higher education.

"Colleges and universities that take as their mission a proactive involvement with urban communities have a responsibility to articulate and promulgate those ideas and concepts that affirm urban strategies," Campbell said. "It involves the universities getting to know and understand the (cultural) institutions, and those institutions understanding what resources the universities can reasonably provide."

Campbell said there are other roles to be served by colleges and universities, and that the effectiveness of such collaborations should be measured by what faculty and staff stand to gain by working with those organizations.

Organizations like the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Harlem School of the Arts can serve as complex laboratories for research, Campbell said.

The possibilities are endless, she said, for discipline-based research.

"We have come a long way, but our job is far from over. And perhaps it never will be," said Campbell, who served Mayor Edward I. Koch as commissioner of cultural affairs of the city of New York. "But I have always believed the great gift of our country is that we have always been able to re-envision and re-imagine ourselves."

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