Chasing the Dream: Arts School


Guest List

• Roger Brown, president of Berklee College of Music.

• Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College.

• Chris Cooper & Marianne Leone Cooper, local stars: he an Academy Award winner, she a Sopranos regular and memoirist.

Show biz is center stage next in our higher ed series: Two venerable private art schools in Boston’s Back Bay — Emerson College and the Berklee College of Music — are booming, if you can believe your eyes. Both have built major gleaming signature buildings close to downtown. Emerson has a satellite campus in Hollywood. Berklee is teaching in China and has a campus in Valencia. More students are chasing the dream and mastering a craft, under a load of debt, with maybe fewer job prospects. But where’s the line between chasing a dream and betting on a bubble?

Harvard’s Helen Vendler, the preeminent poetry critic, is pushing the arts, period. At Harvard and everywhere, she wants to advise admissions officers about the value of creative talent. Would T. S. Eliot, Buckminster Fuller, Matt Damon, and Adrienne Rich have a tough time getting into Harvard today, as in fact they did back in the day? Today, Vendler says, “We need to mute our praise for achievement and leadership at least to the extent that we utter equal praise for inner happiness, reflectiveness, and creativity; and we need to invent ways in which our humanities students are actively recruited for jobs suited to their talents and desires.”

Who’s dreaming here? There’s a reason so many students chase finance: it pays, and many young people leave school in serious debt. At what cost to the students? And to expressive arts? And to our national culture and our reputation?

This week our reading list takes the form of advice from the artists, and a provocative speech from our guest, Lee Pelton, “Can Higher Ed Save Itself?

Below, Duke Ellington and Herb Pomeroy at Berklee College of Music in 1957.


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  • Potter

    What an important direction in which to take this discussion! Helen Vendler is absolutely correct. And Boston should be proud of Emerson and Berklee for all the talent it brings to us from all over the world: to study, to teach and to perform (Berklee music concerts, Arts Emerson.) The load of student debt? This is still the issue. But Boston is a center for musicians and music lovers.

    • Potter

      When my college education was free, not going to incur for me big debt, and despite the warning that with “your arts degree” (I went for my BFA) “and a subway token,” (NYC in those days) “you can get on the train” (i.e. useless), it was no problem to go for the fine arts degree anyway. Those days, and it may still be true, I don’t know, I had to satisfy a solid requirement of “core curriculum” courses: languages, science, history, literature etc.which took two years to complete before I could declare a major (all the while taking art courses as well).

      Too, and later on, I learned that my father-in-law (a violin prodigy) went to the New England Conservatory, and my mother-in law, who wanted to paint, went to Mass College of Art. They also leaped, made those choices.

      I guess it is risky though I think it commendable.

      Arts college/school is a savior for many. I don’t mean it in the sense that it is therapeutic, which it probably is too. But there are talents, types of intellect, that need this form of education and inspiration. We as a society need this too. This background should be a plus for jobs as well. Maybe it’s a hard sell.

  • Cassada

    I went to Berklee in the late 80s and early 90s. I won a partial scholarship to Berklee, but had no parental support for music school. 2 years before I came to Berklee, I studied privately with a jazz master, worked on an oil Rig, in the summers, (living in a “man camp”) drove a delivery truck in the “school year” and worked various night jobs, and week and played week end wedding gigs. During this time I could live in a rooming house in Boulder Colorado for $150 a month and drive a $600 VW. I remember my neighbor was a mentally ill person that was just released from Prison. When you are in your 20s one does have the energy to do 80 hour work weeks. When I came to Boston, I rented what is called today sub standard housing, Got a part time job at HBS 20 hours per week, played gigs on the Cape in the summers, as I could not afford to go “home” for the summers. I figured out I could use my scholarship money for music classes at Berklee, and took my non music classes at Harvard Extension school and transfer them to Berklee. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was and how cheep the classes at Harvard were. I had to take a year off from Berklee to make more money, play gigs travel etc, and I did graduate. I had $3000 in debt. It seems there was a time in America where you could piece together an education. Part of the education was the piecing together, Working at HBS part time opened my eyes. Taking classes at the Extension school opened my eyes. Seeing Dave McKenna play and George Garzone play was so easy, and blew my mind! Getting to play music at a French restaurant in the summers and been payed gift certificates to eat there. They did make us eat in the bar… Hell in my mind Christopher Lydon was the first Mooc! Listening to his Radio show got me to read Emerson the Mind fire and countless other books. I get nervous when I see luxury buildings going up at Berklee, I guess it’s just a different time, but all of this luxury has to be paid for. “Debt, grinding debt whose iron face the widow, the orphan, and the sons of genius fear and hate…”

    • Potter

      Good for you! Regarding the new building at Berklee, Maybe it will be self sustaining what with the recording studios and performance center.

  • Potter

    Regarding that fantastic building, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia,Spain,the Berklee campus is housed there apparently but it also is the home of other arts institutions including or especially their opera company and serves as a cultural center. I think it was built by the government(?). The internationally well known architect is Santiago Calatrava.

    Thankful for Wikipedia as always.

  • Tom Hart

    Bravo for this show, team. I run an art school, The Sequential Artists Workshop in Gainesville, FL, completely unaccredited, opinionated, quick, intense and cheap. We cost $3,500 for our single year and teach everything in that single year that the $30,000 schools do (except maybe the high-tech skills; we’re cheap for a reason.) I started the school after 10 years teaching in higher education as a low-cost alternative (or entry point if they so choose) to the same. A way to gain skills and learn from mentors, without any of the baggage, politics (because the kids always know something weird is going on behind the administrators’ doors) and price tag of higher ed. I’ve never understood how many art schools can justify their prices in today’s world.

  • jefe68

    I recently read this article which backs up my assertion that a third or more of art departments and Art and Performance schools could close and no one would notice. Except the faculty and administrators who depend on the income. As to Berklee, well less than 3% of Americans are into Jazz and there are fewer venues for grads to play in.

    U.S. orchestras are going broke at alarming rates.

    • It was worth reading through the NR article just to get to this thought:

      “….to explore humility through attention to unfamiliar ideas, without regard to their
      own immediate need for gratification.”

  • billyjoemcallisterlovesbridges

    No pity for the privileged.