“Our product is the student,” said Joe Levickas, interim director of Arts at Michigan. For almost 16 years now, Arts at Michigan programs have worked on shaping, guiding and improving their product.
An ideal product — each version different in appearance and mechanics — is the well-rounded student who is engaged and inspired by things outside of his or herself. If you’re reading this, you may very well be one of these special models.
“Art presents the opportunity for alternative perspectives. It gives people the power to connect things around them,” Levickas said.
Artscapade, an event hosted by Arts at Michigan each September, carefully engulfs students with such opportunities.
Aside from Saturdays at the Big House, graduation or events like 2 Chainz and the New York Philharmonic at Hill Auditorium, there are few events on campus that draw in students and other Ann Arbor residents by the thousands.
Artscapade has and continues to comfortably fit more than 3,000 students in the University of Michigan Museum of Modern Art every year since 1999. Inspired by Escapade, a similar event for student organizations held at the Michigan Union, the goal of the program is to introduce new freshman and other students to artistic groups on campus, and give them an opportunity to explore the ways other Michigan students are participating in the arts.
This year's Artscapade, which took place Friday, Sept. 4, kicked off with a performance by percussion group Groove, as well as WBCN DJs outside of the museum, where a picnic feeding thousands took place in front of Angell Hall.
I stopped by this year to check it out, the second time since I attended the event two years ago as a freshman. It was clear from the wandering and offensively bright blobs of yellow T-shirted friends that many of these students, if not most of them, were also freshman.
The event is a sensory explosion and tactile adventure. In addition to having the chance to view the impressive — and arguably underexplored — exhibitions on display, there is live music, dance, film screenings, games and opportunities to win prizes from nearby businesses.
“Having thousands of people who are all suddenly saying, ‘Oh let’s go to the museum,’ and for other students to be able to showcase their own work just creates a totally different atmosphere,” Levickas said.
“The museum is packed and still everyone here is so involved, either watching the performers or doing the activities set up,” said Art & Design junior Elise Haadsma, a member of the dance group Cadence, said. “It’s so fun because to perform in this environment because the audience is so enthusiastic.”
Ann Arbor has long been recognized for its vibrant artistic culture, one that is largely fostered by the presence of the University and its students. With K-12 arts education slipping over the course of the last three decades — due to budget cuts and an increased focus on testing, among other things — the high level of engagement between student organizations and the arts is a big thumbs-up.
That being said, the number of students who haven’t made it to UMMA by their senior year (or any arts event on campus for that matter) is probably higher than it should be. I asked Levickas about what the major barriers to high engagement were.
“One of the big things that seems to be insurmountable is time — people talk about not having any time. But another major thing people say is that they can’t afford it or ‘I don’t know anything about it,’ so a number of the things that we do are meant to try and get around those barriers,” Levickas said. One of the finest examples of this mission in practice is the Passport to the Arts initiative. Students can pick up a Passport voucher every two weeks and attend one of the events listed with a free or discounted ticket.
Levickas, who has been with Arts at Michigan for six years and has a background in painting and arts education, emphasized that Artscapade is also an important part of solving these problems and the program’s greater mission. “We want to connect undergraduate students to the arts; music, theater, film dance, literary arts, whatever it may be,” Levickas said. “Our goal is to try and be that connective tissue, finding ways for them to build their identities or to learn something new about what’s happening on campus.”
Measuring the effectiveness of this connection can be difficult. One of the things that Arts at Michigan does is survey everyone who uses a voucher. Questions are intentionally open-ended, giving way to some interesting results.
“We ask questions like, ‘Have you ever been to an event like this?’ And that can lead to many answers. But whatever it is, a third are saying they’ve never been to an event like that one, and literally 99.5 percent follow that by saying they would go to an event like that again,” Levickas said.
With that idea in mind, the most important thing to know is that participation, or just observation, does not mean expertise. You need not understand the art of film, contemporary painting, or be writing a dissertation on modern dance in order to criticize it, enjoy it, laugh at it or cry. Not only are these valid responses, they’re good ones.
And someone wants to hear about it. Don’t deprive them of your voice, and certainly don’t deprive yourself of realizing you have one.