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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Middlebury & the independent artist: An examination

Despite all its setbacks during the pandemic, Middlebury currently enjoys a lively and expansive artistic landscape, especially as it relates to the performing and visual arts — in part due to the diligence of its faculty, but more importantly, because of the student body’s perseverance and sustained dedication.

Each semester, a wide variety of faculty productions and student theses are performed, housed both by traditional campus theaters, such as Wright Memorial and Seeler Studio, and the beloved student-run black box theater, the Hepburn Zoo. Many students are involved in multiple shows per semester in a variety of roles: as actors, stage managers, directors, dramaturgs and even as uncredited stage-hands. In the Film and Media Culture (FMMC) Department, a vast catalog of camera equipment, lighting design and sound tools are available to students and correspond to course levels, ascending upward according to complexity and the proper education necessary to navigate them.

The aforementioned artistic endeavors and opportunities are sufficiently funded by the college and offer students an abundance of resources to be creative in whatever fashion they feel best suits their vision. Having considered the vast resources available to students inside of the classroom, why, then, is it so damn hard to gain both financial and popular support for independent art projects outside of the classroom?

I must admit, before addressing the issue any further, that I myself have personal experience in combating the treacherous channels of accruing the necessary tools for independent art. I shot a narrative short film last spring without a budget and with camera equipment either purchased out-of-pocket or gathered via frantic messages to friends and family who, thankfully, did have access to helpful resources. After numerous emails to Middlebury’s Film Department asking for technical support, I was either met with no response or sound rejection. I was even enrolled in a film course, yet the curriculum did not equip me with the proper credentials to gain access to the Film Department’s vast entourage of cameras, microphones and lighting equipment. I also attempted to produce a play at Middlebury this spring. While first met with resounding excitement and a surprising verve, the project soon died as the long search to cast eventually dried up and proved fruitless once all student contacts had been exhausted.

Although it isn’t specifically discouraged, in general, independent art across disciplines isn’t all that encouraged by Middlebury outside of the classroom. In fact, it is quite difficult to gain access to the resources requisite for spontaneous, artistic exploration. It

is true that there are a number of independent resources available for students upon request, like the Hepburn Zoo’s financial and spatial offerings as well as a student body eager to involve themselves with independent work. There are also funding opportunities such as the Old Stone Mill, the David S. Stone ’74 Tree House Fund, MiddChallenge and MiddStart, yet the fact of the matter is that either these benefits have been cultivated by students, require lengthy application processes, or they contain minor stipulations that confine potentially broad and exploratory artistic endeavors to a specific time, topic, or place. The supposedly “accessible” camera, lighting and sound equipment owned by the FMMC Department is actually only available if one is taking the correlated class. The scarce excess equipment, otherwise, is lent to film majors and minors, leaving little room for artistic exploration if one is not already associated with the Department. So, I ask the Film Department: How is an underclassman supposed to discover they want to be a film major at all, if using camera equipment and producing high-quality films essentially requires being a film major in the first place?

One might counter my points with the contention that a discovery of passion first stems from inside the classroom (which then grants access to equipment), and as a result, one must initially take film courses to explore and eventually discover an interest in the major. But in my experience, the most profound artistic revelations and bursts of creativity come when an uninhibited curiosity is fostered through access to equipment. What happens to the pre-med physics/chemistry double major who discovers a passion for film production, yet whose schedule prevents them from pursuing it within the classroom? What happens to the curious first year who simply wants to learn what film production entails? Will they be denied by these policies?

I have, thus far, tried to avoid a purely economic argument as to why independent art requires more support. In my mind, one cannot justify the need for resources simply by stating the price one pays for them. The ability to express art is an innate right and should be afforded to each student regardless of monetary resources, even if Middlebury didn’t have a $1.467 billion endowment. Yet, at the same time, the very fact we pay $80,000 each year at Middlebury is all the justification necessary to fairly demand more comprehensive resources.

What, then, can we do to amend these insufficiencies? After all, exposing the issue is only a fraction of creating actual change. But perhaps the solution is not as complex as the problem makes it seem. Perhaps it lies in simple awareness, in advocating continuously for independent art even when it is difficult. Perhaps, for student actors, it lies in directing, designing, and acting in a small Hepburn Zoo production of “True West.” Or perhaps it manifests in acting for a newly-written student play instead of a faculty show. Perhaps it means continuing to attend WOMP and local performances, serving as technician for those in need, when necessary. Maybe it means establishing an independent film exchange, where interested persons can collaborate, lend, and borrow personal equipment for desired projects. Maybe it requires committing to protest against the policies of each art department until they evolve. It may mean forgoing some of your own initial desires for the proliferation of independent art as a whole.

Regardless of what the actual solution may be, one can safely conclude the artistic landscape at Middlebury is limited in some sense, and until it becomes more accessible, many students may never engage in the first place. After all, isn’t the whole point of a liberal arts education the exploration of a wide range of tools, ideas, cultures and resources, both inside and outside of the classroom? What happens to the integrity and meaning behind a Middlebury education once these ideals have been compromised? Has it, then, become nothing more than a fatuous status symbol, a meaningless name-brand indicator conflated with worth or accomplishment? Is it then pithless? While my grievances may seem to expose minor infractions against an otherwise intact artistic landscape, one must understand that any inadequacy of this institution going unnoticed encourages the proliferation of and ignorance to more. And for all who aren’t directly affected by these issues, please consider the implications of letting them go undetected. What passions, facilities, or activities, then, will soon falter, or perhaps disappear, as a result of student complacency? I implore each of you to recall that Middlebury is an institution formed and upheld to serve its students, to bridge the gap between intellectual curiosity and tangible, real-world impact, and must now be held accountable for the promises it made to us upon matriculation. Support independent art, Middlebury. Do more. Do better.