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‘Art changes the world’ – a UIUC initiative aims to embed the arts into all aspects of campus life

Cynthia Oliver, a dance professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is leading a new initiative to amplify the arts on campus and in the surrounding community.

A dance professor is leading a new campus-wide initiative to amplify arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and in the surrounding community. 

Cynthia Oliver joined the Dance at Illinois faculty in 2000. Five years ago, she became the Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation in the humanities, arts and related fields.

Many artists on campus, including herself, have been advocating for the arts to play a more significant role, she said.

“There are brilliant, skilled artists on campus who do compelling work, both on campus and off. And so many people don’t know about these stories. What I’m interested in is bringing those stories to light,” Oliver said.

She proposed the idea of an arts initiative to Chancellor Robert Jones and he agreed to support it. 

This initiative is different from projects at other schools, Oliver said, because it’s a  campus-wide, and not confined to an individual department or college.

At the beginning of the academic year, Oliver was named the special advisor to the chancellor for arts integration. As part of her role, Oliver said she’s been working with UIUC administrators to create a plan to integrate arts with research.

One of the goals of the initiative is to foster collaborations between artists and scholars in other disciplines. 

Oliver said that other scholars can benefit from working with artists because artists are not afraid to fail. 

Those of us who are in the performing arts and have to deal with auditioning and having others judge what we do, we are very accustomed to failure. We’re a bit hard-headed because we keep coming back,” she said. “So it’s that kind of determination that I think is important.”

Oliver added that a diverse mix of perspectives can lead to innovative solutions for a range of challenges

“Just being in a room with different people causes you to think differently, folks ask questions differently. Having that kind of friction might lead to a possibility that one may not have thought of before. So I think that the important thing is making sure that we’re in a situation where very different methods meet,” she said. 

Oliver said “CETACEAN (The Whale)” is an example of this approach. This performance piece, created by artists Deke Weaver and Jennifer Allen, is part of a larger project that features an endangered animal or habitat for each letter of the alphabet.

Weaver looked at what is impacting whales and their environment, and Allen looked at the movement of the systems animals live in and reflected that through choreography with other performers, Oliver said.

Other people involved in the project specialized in sustainability and helped find materials for the set. 

Oliver said the project was successful in engaging the community with art. 

“Over 2,000 people in our community saw it. So not only did it inspire, and ignite interest in our prospective disciplines, but it also benefited the entire community. That’s what art does,” she said.

In addition to incorporating arts with research and other academic fields, Oliver hopes to give students more opportunities to include art in their education. 

Oliver says her dream is to give all future UIUC students an opportunity to specialize in an area of art that can complement their major. 

She said creating and learning about art can help students become better problem solvers. 

Even though the initiative started on campus, Oliver said she wants the university to collaborate with community partners to showcase local art. 

“My aim is to get art everywhere. Art changes the world. Art makes our very existence possible, palatable, pleasurable,” she said. “And I want to make sure that we have more of it everywhere.”

Stephanie Mosqueda

Stephanie Mosqueda

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