A Stadium for the Arts

Author: James M. Collins

Anyone who has even just driven by the Notre Dame campus along Edison Road in South Bend knows that the new Marie P. DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts is a striking addition to the local landscape. Given its dramatic roofline and elaborate façade, this is clearly a serious building that makes its presence known in no uncertain terms to both the Notre Dame and South Bend communities.

Judging by the reviews I’ve heard around campus, in the supermarket and down at the Farmer’s Market, the architectural aspects of the building are a great success. Everyone seems to know exactly where it is, and they know they like it. Even the less-than-enthusiastic fans of neo-Gothic architecture concede that it’s the most impressive example of this style on campus. For this building to be considered a success from an academic perspective, however, it has to fulfill a complicated mission—to move the performing arts from the margins to a central place in the Notre Dame experience.

The stage is set for the performing arts center to accomplish that mission in three interdependent ways. First, it will change, at the most fundamental level, how courses in film, television, theater and music are taught at this university. The classroom and other spaces designed primarily for instruction—including rehearsal rooms, design labs, editing suites—will enable students to refine their creative abilities in ways that weren’t possible in existing antiquated spaces. As someone who teaches courses in film criticism and history, I’m also exhilarated by the prospect of Notre Dame having its own art-house cinema. This will give students the chance to see the best in foreign and independent films in a state-of-the-art THX-certified projection facility. That exposure, I believe, will help increase their understanding of the global culture in which we live.

The public performance spaces—the concert hall, the 350-seat theatre, the cinema, the studio theatre, and the organ and choral hall—will also function as teaching environments. Their contribution to the University, however, will be measured by how they change public life at Notre Dame, which is as much a part of our academic mission as the classes we teach. Public events have been held at the University virtually since its inception, but the majority of such events have been produced by and for specific departments or colleges. The spiritual mission of the University is honored through Masses; other public events intended for the entire Notre Dame community often focus on sports. The performing arts center will expand the range of possibilities for celebrating a sense of community, making it abundantly clear that this community can come together and see itself just as robustly through the artistic work that is produced here.

The third way that this facility will enable us to accomplish our goal of making the performing arts central to the Notre Dame community is the most intangible but the most profound. Urbanist Kevin Lynch has argued that the success of any urban environment depends on its _imageability_—does the place offers strong public images that form a set of common mental pictures carried by large numbers of its inhabitants? Given the number of monumental structures on this campus—the golden dome, the Basilica, “Touchdown Jesus,” the Grotto—Notre Dame has perhaps the most imageable campus in the country. But until the performing arts center arrived, there were no strong mental pictures of the performing arts within that reservoir of images that constitute the Notre Dame experience.

As long as these arts were without a site that could join that pool of mental pictures that define the University as a vital atmosphere for learning, and an equally vital landscape of shared memory, they were condemned to being left out of the picture, both literally and metaphorically.

For the performing arts to become central to the mission of this university, we needed a world-class facility where students could be given the best possible instruction. But our ultimate goal is to give them a sense of how important the arts can be in a lifelong education process.

By marking a place for the teaching and appreciation of film, television, theatre and music on campus, the performing arts center will acquire the sort of monumentality described by the architect Charles Moore: “Monumentality is not a product of compositional techniques, or flamboyance of form, or even conspicuous consumption of space, time or money. It is, rather, a function of a society’s taking possession of, or agreeing upon, extraordinarily important places on the earth’s surface, and of the society’s celebrating their pre-eminence.”

Our academic mission will be successfully realized only when this building achieves that monumentality by providing not just the stages for artistic performance but the possibility of staging a new form of public life for Notre Dame.

Jim Collins is an associate professor of film, television and theatre at Notre Dame.