Live from UNLV: Impact of university arts programs extends well beyond Las Vegas
University of Nevada, Las Vegas has long defied the myth that Las Vegas is a cultural wasteland, especially in recent years.
Its jazz studies program has become nationally recognized and its Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art has become a contemporary art destination that’s indicative of the community it serves. And Artemus W. Ham Hall remains a performance venue dedicated to offering unique cultural programming.
But its College of Fine Arts boasts a lot more than that, and with fresh leadership in its music and theater departments, the students of UNLV are taking creativity to a new level.
The College, which offers programs in art, music, film, dance, theater, architecture and entertainment engineering and design, has been busy lately, from planning its sixth annual Artwalk (to take place on campus Nov. 3), to talking with community and business leaders about collaborations intended to enhance the students' experience.
Forays off campus have already paid off. The CFA Around the World program saw the college making a big impression at last summer's Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
"And our show was the only student show — if you don't mind my bragging for a minute— that got a five-star review in The Scotsman newspaper," said Nancy Uscher, dean of the UNLV College of Fine Arts. "And it was all seven of our academic disciplines working for months to come together and create something that never existed before."
Uscher also mentioned plans about a possible new home for the College.
"I hope the first half of the decade, we are going to build a sensational state-of-the-art building on campus where Grant Hall currently is. And it's going to be led by the visual arts, but be entirely interdisciplinary with two new performance venues, rooftop events, a gathering space, a gallery space, a cafe, front porch — it's going to be a sensational resource for the community."
One of Uscher's newest hires is Kirsten Brandt, who chairs the theater department and heads up the College's theater production arm, Nevada Conservatory Theatre. A frequent visitor but an official resident after her stint as associate chair and artistic director of the film/theater at San Jose State University, Brandt sees overlap with the Las Vegas community on issues she's long explored in her work and studies — namely, gender, technology and politics.
"A lot of theater is a live living art form; what we do is we create art that reflects what's happening in the world," she said. "Theater is about immediacy. And I think gender inequity is a huge issue that ... we've been dealing with. I think politics is always changing, particularly as we look at things like climate justice, diversity, equity and inclusion, but also performance technologies. I think theater is evolving. And what we learned from COVID is that we need to be able to adapt as leaders have always adapted to what is happening right now. And how we can take the technologies that are coming through — whether it's digital, digital media, whether it's projection designs — and use that as a way of creating community. And all of these things that we do in theater is about creating community."
Uscher also recently oversaw the promotion of longtime music professor Timothy Jones to vice dean of the college. The School of Music offers educational opportunities not just in music creation and performance, but also technology and production.
Jones is a well-traveled and oft-recording percussionist/drummer, and he feels that experience informs his job as an academic.
"There are choices that you have to make when you perform that you can't always predict," he said. "And so that comes with experience. I think that translates to helping with the leadership of the college because there are things that happen on a daily basis here that need attention, and they need creative attention. And for the most part, that is helping students to understand where they're going. A lot of times, it's even just listening to students, to understand what they're feeling, what they're going through, giving them an opportunity to express what they need in their curriculum and courses. And I think that students respond in a better way if you have had that experience, or you are continually performing and playing, because you can relate to them on the same level at many points."
Guests: Nancy Uscher, dean, UNLV College of Fine Arts; Kirsten Brandt, chair, department of theater and executive director, Nevada Conservatory Theatre; Timothy Jones, vice dean, College of Fine Arts and professor, UNLV School of Music