Cristle Collins Judd: A Brief History of the Arts at Bowdoin (Part II)

artsatBowdoinToday, the arts play a central role in a Bowdoin education, but that hasn’t always been the case. In this three-part series, Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd explores the history and trajectory of the arts at Bowdoin and the generosity, vision, and determination that have built extraordinary facilities, nurtured the impressive talent of faculty and their students, and continue to bring joy to audiences and thousands of art lovers each and every year.

In the second installment of A Brief History of the Arts at Bowdoin, Dean Judd looks at the introduction of academic credit in the arts and the evolution of art and music, then theater and dance, during Bowdoin’s second century. (Yesterday’s first installment is available here.)

One hundred years after the arrival of James Bowdoin III’s bequest, the arts began to move into the Bowdoin curriculum, primarily in the areas of history and criticism as courses in art history and music theory were added in 1912-1913. In the annual report of the President, William DeWitt Hyde describes these curricular changes:

Courses in Art and Music

The chief improvements in the curriculum during the year have been the introduction of courses in Art and Music.

The courses in Art include the History of Ancient, Mediaeval Renaissance and Modern Art: a general survey of the development of the Fine Arts and their place in ancient and modern life; the study of significant objects of the arts of architecture sculpture and painting; study of the original objects of art in the college collections; the principles of aesthetic criticism; and the problems of the archaeologist.

It is proposed to extend the courses from two to four: giving in alternation on year architecture and sculpture, and the other year painting.

The courses in Music include two courses in the development of the art of music, and musical appreciation, preparing the student to understand and appreciate musical performances, and requiring no technical preparation; and two courses in harmony and counterpoint.  In addition there is a course in chorus singing which does not count toward the degree.

The presence of Mr. Wass as organist, leader of the choir, and trainer of the Glee Club, together with the introduction of the courses in music have wrought a great improvement in the musical portion of the Chapel service, and awakened a new interest in good music.  To make the most of our opportunities we need an enlargement of the organ, a new piano, and hymn books adapted to male voices.

The enthusiastic response of the students to these courses in Art and Music shows that we had been giving too exclusively an education for vocation: and that there is a real demand for education for the enjoyment of leisure.  With these additions we now offer in fact as well as in name a course in liberal arts.

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As McKeen indicates, the courses proved popular. By the second year of instruction, enrollment in art courses equaled that of biology. In 1913, Masque and Gown also adopted a new charter and focused on plays by William Shakespeare and in 1918, a professor of literature was named as the faculty advisor to Masque and Gown.

In 1927, President Kenneth C.M. “Casey” Sills (Bowdoin Class of 1901) reported that:

For many years in the President’s Report there have been included in the list of needs of the College a new organ for the Chapel and a swimming pool. Thanks to the generosity of our good friend, Mr. Cyrus H.K. Curtis, of Philadelphia, both of these needs have now been met.

When the Curtis organ was installed in the chapel it was the third organ to have been built at the College, and Curtis provided for “as large an organ as the chapel would accommodate.” After the demise of an earlier instrument, the faculty had voted in 1911 to provide a new organ, but the visiting committee declined to fund it. Each subsequent year, a new organ was included in the list of the needs of the College. Sills could hardly have imagined that eighty years later Cyrus Curtis’s companion gift of a swimming pool would be transformed into another pillar of the arts at Bowdoin, Studzinski Recital Hall and Kanbar Auditorium — but that’s a later chapter in this story. Curtis himself played on the organ after its dedication. (This was not the only organ that Curtis provided in Maine: he was also the benefactor of the Kotzschmar organ in Portland.)

In the same year that the organ was built, the College hosted an Institute of Art. Biennial Institutes were held at the College from 1923 to 1952 on a variety of topics, bringing scholars and intellectuals to campus. The program for the 1927 institute included the following:

  • George Harold Edgell (Harvard) – “Why We Study the Fine Arts”
  • Mrs. George Grant MacCurdy (New Haven) – “Prehistoric Art”
  • William M. Ivins, Jr. (Metropolitan Museum) – “Prints”
  • Kenneth MacGowan (New York) – “The Art of the Theatre Today and Tomorrow”
  • E. Baldwin Smith (Princeton) – What Makes Style in Architecture?”
  • Harvey Wylie Corbett (New York) – “Why the Skyscraper?”
  • Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (New York) – “Tendencies in Modern American Painting”
  • Walter Pach (New York) – Modernist Painting”
  • Violet Oakley (Philadelphia) – Muralist Painting
  • R. Tait McKenzie (Philadelphia) – Athletic Sports as an Inspiration for Painting”
  • Frank Weitenkampf – “Prints and Print Makers”

The institute appears to have been an unqualified success, with Sills remarking at the closing:

We have all been surprised and delighted at the response to the Institute both on the part of the undergraduates and of the public.  Feeling that art would not be so popular a theme as either Modern History or Modern Literature [the subjects of earlier institutes], we thought we might be doing a service to Art by this Institute; and we find that Art has done much for us.

Robert P.T. Coffin with his poetry class, 1944.

Robert P.T. Coffin with his poetry class, 1944.

Throughout his tenure, the arts were a recurring focus for Sills, with “The Fine Arts” becoming a regular heading in his annual “President’s Report.” In 1935 he hired George H. “Pat” Quinby ’23 as director of dramatics (a post he held until 1966). The following year he hired Philip Beam as curator (later as director) of the Museum of Art and Fred E. T. Tillotson H’49 as professor of music. The addition of Robert Peter Tristram Coffin ’15 to the faculty reflected Sills’s desire to have on the faculty not only an instructor in the history of poetry, but a practicing poet.

With these appointments and a number of developments in the curricular and extra-curricular activities in the 1930s, many familiar facets of Bowdoin’s present arts landscape were put in place.  Awards for student-written one-act plays were added to the list of annually awarded prizes, the Meddiebempsters were formed in 1937, and Phil Beam offered the first course in studio art for academic credit in 1938. In the same year, lessons in vocal and instrumental music were introduced, but without credit toward graduation and with students bearing the cost of lessons. Various student performing groups flourished in these years.

As with art, the turning point for the greater integration of music into the College’s curriculum came through the aegis of a biennial institute, dedicated to music in 1939. Professor Tillotson pulled together an extraordinary line-up of national and international luminaries with a program that included:

  • Olin Downes (Music critic, New York Times) – “The Critic’s Point of View”
  • Bruce Simonds (Yale) – “Romantic and Impressionistic Music”
  • Yves Chardon (cellist, Boston Symphony) accompanied by Tillotson in a recital of five Beethoven Sonatas
  • Georges Laurent, Putnam Aldrich performing a recital of 17th and 18th century music for the harpsichord and flute
  • Otto Kinkeldey (Cornell) – “The Significance of the Scholar and the Purpose of Research in Music”
  • Aaron Copland – “A Survey of Contemporary Music”
  • The Curtis String Quartet (joined by Tillotson and Copland) performing a program of contemporary American chamber music
  • Archibald T. Davison (Harvard)– “Voices and Instruments”
  • Nadia Boulanger conducting the Wellesley College Choir, the Bowdoin Glee Club, and the Orchestra of the Longy School of Music in concert

Merely sharing the stage with Copland, Boulanger and the Curtis Quartet put Tillotson among the most highly respected performers and composers of the time, and Downes, Kinkeldey and Davison are names that are instantly recognizable to music scholars today for their prominent roles in shaping the field of American musicology. Interestingly, Kindeldey was the first president of the American Musicological Society, an academic society founded in 1934 to advance research in the various fields of music as a branch of learning and scholarship whose national office moved to Bowdoin in 2006.

At the opening of the Institute, Sills waxed lyrical:

Nine according to Dante was a mystic number; the square of three; with Beatrice the symbol of perfection.  And so it is perhaps appropriate that the ninth biennial institute of Bowdoin College should be concerned with Music; the queen of the arts.  Music has indeed from time to time played an important role in education.  In the medieval quadrivium it lightened and adorned the other liberal arts of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.  In history in various conduct books music has often been regarded as necessary for the real lady and desirable for the true gentleman.  But it has won its way into the curriculum of the college comparatively late.  For example, at Bowdoin it was just about twenty-five years ago that courses in music were first given college credit; and music is not yet here a major department though fast winning its way…. It is therefore highly appropriate that the academic world should recognize this Cinderalla and make her into a lprincess and for longer than the length of this institute.  The College indeed feels that in providing the program of lectures nad concerts and broadcasts so ably planned by our dynamic and inspiring professor of music, Mr. Tillotson, and his hard-working colleagues, we are again making something of a contribution to the community which so loyally supports us.

In the Sesquicentennial Capital Campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s, two of the pressing needs identified by the campaign were “Better Facilities for Music” and “A College Theater.” Both were brought to fruition as Gibson Hall (1954) and Pickard Theater (created within Memorial Hall in 1955) were direct outcomes of the Sesquicentennial Fund.

The 1960s and 70s were a period of intensive change and transformation for Bowdoin and the nation, and the arts played an important role. In 1964, Marvin Sadik’s landmark exhibition, “The Portrayal of the Negro in American Art,” coincided with the visit to campus of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. John McKee’s 1966 photo exhibition and catalogue “As Maine Goes” has been widely credited with energizing environmental activism in Maine.

Gibson Hall, shortly after completion

Gibson Hall, shortly after completion

In 1964, Professor Robert K. Beckwith and Lewis Kaplan founded the Bowdoin Music Festival (now the Bowdoin International Music Festival, and credit began to be granted for musical performance in 1967.

Instruction in film and dance coincided with the admission of women to the College in 1971 and were largely spearheaded by two new faculty members: Barbara Kaster and June Vail. Their course offerings included classes in the history of film, acting and directing, and history of dance. Similarly to the trajectory taken with the introduction of courses at Bowdoin in music and the visual arts 60 years earlier, credit was not awarded for courses in technique and dance performance and would not be for another fifteen years. A vibrant film society was formed shortly after the introduction of film into the college curriculum.

The most notable physical change to the campus came with the building of the new Visual Arts Center, which opened in 1975 as the home of art history and visual art. As Patricia Anderson details in her book, “The Architecture of Bowdoin College,” the original intent was to add an addition onto the Walker Art Building, which could no longer accommodate Bowdoin’s growing art collection, let alone all the museum and academic programs. Rather than “hook the new building onto the McKim, Meade and White structure,” architect Edward Larrabee Barnes insisted on a separate building in order to preserve the structural rhythm of the Quad. Faced with a site dominated by the Walker Art Building on one side, Searles on the other, and the beloved Class of 1875 Gateway running through the middle toward Richard Upjohn’s Chapel, Barnes chose to do something completely different in order to provide new space for art and studio classes, storage, a library, exhibitions, and offices, while also creating a new gateway to the campus.

In 1985, President Greason formed a special committee to “review the status of the Creative Arts at Bowdoin.” The committee was mandated to make recommendations for the strengthening of the creative arts, which in the President’s words were “an area of the curriculum that I think has long been neglected.”  Conclusions of the report included the following:

Although the Visual Arts Center is quite new, the arts faculty finds it unsatisfactory for their needs, and music and film faculty make similar comments about Kresge Auditorium . . . Because the art studios have insufficient light and space, the studio program is searching for space elsewhere on campus. . .

Although additional staff, increased budgets and new facilities for the arts are needed, they alone will not suffice.  A new community attitude towards the arts at Bowdoin needs to be developed if we are to realize the vision suggested by President Hyde nearly a century ago.

The most direct outcome of the report was the formation of the Department of Theater and Dance in 1987 and the award of academic credit for classes in dance.

Visual Arts Center, 1975

Visual Arts Center, 1975

Bowdoin’s Bicentennial celebration began in the 1993-94 year with the publication of Charles Calhoun’s A Small College in Maine: Two Hundred Years of Bowdoin and The Legacy of James Bowdoin III, edited by Katharine Watson. A Bicentennial Fine Arts Institute on “The Visual Arts and the Common Good” was held from February 14-17, 1994; a music marathon by fourteen Bowdoin alumni and accompanists was also held in February; a play about John Brown Russwurm [1826] by Amy Merrill Ansara and Robert C. Johnson, Jr. ’71, “Freedom’s Journeyman”, was performed in May, and a concert by the Bicentennial Chorus, Bicentennial Chamber Orchestra, Down East Singers, and the Casco Bay Concert band was held in June. The New Century Campaign for Bowdoin raised the money for the renovation of Pickard Theater, the construction of Wish Theater, and the renovation of the Walker Art Building dome.

Under the leadership of President Robert Edwards, the renovations of Memorial Hall were completed in 2000, including a complete remodeling of the main theater and construction of the 150-seat, flexible Wish Theater, made possibly by a generous gift from Barry N. Wish ’63 and Oblio Wish.  Renovations also included a fully equipped design classroom, new seminar rooms, expanded rehearsal space and a new dance studio.

Author’s note: It is a great privilege to search out and relate these bits of Bowdoin’s history as a narrative timeline of sorts, and to play a role in the recent history. Inevitably an essay like this can only offer highlights of two hundred years, and some of my readers will likely feel that I have given more recent decades short shrift, in which case I look forward to the comments from alumni and others that will fill in some of the many gaps.


In the third and final installment of A Brief History of the Arts at Bowdoin, Dean Judd describes the recent recommitment to the arts at the College and their central role in a Bowdoin education today.



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