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A flying start for the arts


Why the new Imagine Fund is critical

By Deane Morrison

pottery wheel
The University's new Imagine Arts Fund will help faculty in the arts, humanities, and design fields.

September 26, 2008

In 1976 Eileen Zeitz found herself in Argentina when the military ousted President Isabel Per?n and installed a military junta. It was particularly hard for Zeitz because she knew several Argentine newspaper reporters, whose profession put them at high risk of being kidnapped and murdered by the junta and joining the ranks of "the disappeared." "It was appalling," says Zeitz, now a Spanish professor at UMD. "I became a poet and short-story writer in Spanish to give a voice to the disappeared." She now has produced three books of poetry and a collection of short stories, but only because she was able to travel to Argentina in the first place. Finding the means to travel is among several financial obstacles for faculty in the arts, humanities, or design. But this fall the University of Minnesota is reshaping the landscape with the new "Imagine Fund," a $1.3 million systemwide initiative to support faculty in those fields regardless of rank or tenure status.

The art of funding

The Imagine Fund was created from a major McKnight Foundation gift, with added support from funds within the Graduate School and Office of the Vice President for Research. Money for endowed chairs was provided by the Permanent University Fund, a public endowment derived from sources such as state iron ore taxes, royalties, and federal land grants. For more, see the news release.

The fund creates 250 annual awards of $3,000, which faculty recipients can use to enhance their research or teaching. Other features include new endowed chairs and a special fund to encourage innovation, collaboration, and greater public engagement by faculty. The program begins this fall and should be in full swing next year. The Imagine Fund gives a leg up to University faculty whose work is central to success in many crucial areas, says Jon Binks, assistant to University Provost and fund creator Tom Sullivan. For example, in the Iraq War, cultural, language, and historical misunderstandings have played a central role. Terrorism, too, has many facets that arts, humanities, and design faculty have insight into. "Humanities are what allows people to be strong critical thinkers and helps them understand [interpersonal] differences and overcome them," adds Zeitz.

"Humanities are what allows people to be strong critical thinkers and helps them understand [interpersonal] differences and overcome them."

Art history professor Gabriel Weisberg says the new initiative can only help the status of the arts and humanities, whose meager research budgets have cast them in the role of "a poor stepchild" within academia. Travel money is especially tight, and faculty in these fields have a much smaller range of external resources available to them than, say, those in many sciences and engineering. "Arts and humanities research is not very strongly supported in the United States," Weisberg says. But at the same time, "it's almost impossible for foreigners to get money to do research in Europe. It's almost unheard-of."

Don't pass this up

If you're a University of Minnesota student and want to explore the arts, check out the new Arts Pass. Through May 16, 2009, you can get passes to six shows on campus for $50. Find out what shows are included and how to get a pass by visiting the Arts Pass Web site.

For an American like Weisberg, whose research on art is centered in France, this is a major issue. His work often involves face-to-face negotiations to arrange exhibits, as well as the study of original documents. "You can't do a lot of this research on the Internet. You can't do it by e-mail or conference calls," he says. "You have to look at the whites of their eyes. With a weak dollar, I don't know how junior faculty can afford to do this." An Imagine Fund award, however, would be very helpful in getting a faculty member abroad. "It at least gets them a foot in the door," says Weisberg. "I think it's terrific." Travel isn't the only thing, though. University dance professor Carl Flink knows from experience with his own company, Black Label Movement, how expensive it is to mount performing arts productions. "To have eight to 10 dancers in one space for an hour costs $100 to $300," he says. "Three thousand dollars would cover a lighting designer and a stage manager for a show. It's kindling--a starting point." And a darned important one. To pull in a grant, says Flink, a person often needs to have money already in hand to convince the granting agency he or she is worthy of its support. With an Imagine Fund award, "lots of professors will be starting the year not at zero, but at $3,000." Too often, arts, humanities, and design have been underappreciated as a force in keeping the University vigorous, says Flink. "Dance, theatre, music, and visual arts are often put forward in images to show a vibrant institution," he observes. "But [until now] there hasn't been a culture shift to support the things the University uses to advertise itself and project its public face. I already feel the University is advanced in its thinking about visual arts and performing arts. But the Imagine Fund is a high-profile way of stating it to the U community and the community at large."