President's Blog

President’s Picks for October

Each month, I’m offering a few suggestions about the UArts-related activities I’m most excited about. They might take place on campus and involve students, or they may feature the work of faculty or alumni off-campus. It’s a highly subjective list–hardly comprehensive. You can find a more complete list of events and activities on the UArts web page.

Are you a passionate UArts fan and a devoted follower of contemporary art? Then this month’s President’s Picks is for you.

UArts faculty and alumni are to be found across the city in October–everywhere from tiny spaces run by artist collectives to the Institute of Contemporary Art. Here’s my suggested itinerary for a Saturday afternoon.

Start with ICA. Alumni Jayson Musson and Alex Da Corte collaborated on “Easternsports,” a video installation that features Philadelphia landmarks (e.g. the Mummers Museum) and artists’ works (e.g., those of former UArts faculty member Edna Andrade) lovingly re-created in a three-hour, non-narrative visual tour-de-force. It’s a departure for both artists, who attended UArts together and have been friends for years. Musson’s known as the creator of hip-hop art theorist Hennessy Youngman; Da Corte is a pop sculptor whose work ranges from detailed environmental installations to design artifacts wittily repurposed as sculpture.

Then head over to the art mecca at 319 N. 11th Street in the Loft District. There you’ll find a concentration of alternative art spaces, operated mostly by artist collectives. Napoleon, founded by a group of artists including a number of UArts graduates, is showing the work of founding member H. John Thompson, who earned his MFA at the University and now teaches at Penn State-Abington. John’s installation features two “viewing boxes” containing wooden models of the plane that carried hijacker DB Cooper and the lost ship Edmund Fitzgerald. Beautifully rendered, the models are a paean to unsolved mysteries, to the unknowability of history.

A few doors down, ceramics graduate Nick Lenker has taken over the space at Practice. What’s there are the artifacts used in his performance “Long Hidden Friend,” inspired by a dish he saw at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Nick’s neo-hex signs, vessels, and other paraphernalia are beautiful and creepy–a worthy representation of what I can only guess was a heart-pounding performance at the opening.

Upstairs, you’ll find the grandaddy of the collectives: Vox Populi. Alex Rosenberg, head of our glass program, is one of Vox’s newest members. His installation, “Hyperpyrexic,” is a veritable chemistry lab of a performance, in which Alex strips the ink from literary passages (including one from UArts Creative Writing professor Zach Savich) and distills it into an essence through which texts inscribed on glass can be read. Alex performs in the space once a week, cutting up texts and dissolving them in his home-brewed solvent.

Before you go, pop into the new gallery, 319, downstairs. There you’ll see “New Sight,” a terrific show curated by Philadelphia artists Zoe Strauss and Sarah McEneaney that features two alumni: Joseph Opshinsky and Dot Vile. From there, it’s a short jaunt to PAFA, where you must see “Convergence” in Gallery 128, a juried show featuring work from all of Philly’s art schools. I know I’m biased, but I think the UArts students are showing some of the strongest work in the show.

Need a break after an afternoon of visual art? Then check out Joanna Settle’s production of “Rapture, Blister, Burn” at the Wilma. Joanna is the new director of the Brind School of Theater Arts and was tasked with directing the first show of the Wilma’s season. Gina Gionfriddo’s play, about grad school friends who take very different paths, is funny, angry and sad. I can’t wait to see what Joanna’s done with it!

It’s a busy October: lots to do and see. Enjoy!


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Our fearless theater students

UArts Proud to Present

from left: Christopher Garofalo, Marcus Briddell, Abigail Garber (in background), Jeremy Konopka

At UArts, we know that it takes courage to make art. Courage to ask difficult questions about oneself and one’s world. Courage to share your work with others and to risk criticism or, worse, indifference. Courage simply to confront a blank page or empty canvas or dark stage and to begin to fill it.

I’ve been watching students here muster the courage to make their art for years. Their fearlessness–which I’m quite certain I didn’t possess when I was in college–never fails to impress me.

And again, last weekend, I saw something that drove home just how much risk our students are willing to take in service of their art. Students in our Brind School of Theater Arts performed Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly Known as South-West Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915″ Directed by Matt Pfeiffer, who’s worked at the Lantern, the Arden, Theater Exile, and more, the play depicts a group of actors rehearsing a theater piece about the genocide of the Herero people by the German colonial government.

Over the course of the play, the actors squabble over who will play what part, how they will use source materials, who’s better at improvisation. But their attempts to imagine and, ultimately, to present the experience of the Herero (and of the German genocidaires) lead them–perhaps inevitably, the playwright seems to suggest?–to re-enact the history of American racial conflict and to enact the legacy of American racism anew.

Encouraged by their actor training to dig into their own experiences and emotions in order to discover the truth of the play, the characters (who are actors, remember) first argue over whether it’s even possible to access such distant and abhorrent feelings before slowly uncovering their own (not-s0) deeply buried racism and allowing it to surface in shocking and violent ways.

It’s not an easy play to watch. It’s got to be an even more difficult play to perform, given how it makes actors and the strategies they use to create characters its central conceit. When I saw the piece, the audience was in shock; afterwards, many were in tears. This was, in part, because of the power of Drury’s play. But it was also because the audience–made up of friends, family, and fellow students–watched that thin layer that separates performance from reality disintegrate, saw actors exposed as people who might really feel what they’re playing at feeling.

The actors must be experiencing the same thing from the other side: they’re not simply being asked to say and do reprehensible things; they’re being asked to accept that those terrible words and actions may lie just beneath the veneer of performance, ready to burst forth violently. In some ways, that’s always true for actors, no matter what the play; but there’s something about this piece that just strips the conventions of performance away.

And our students didn’t hesitate. They were there, fully present with the script to the very depths of its depths. I don’t know what that took. I almost can’t imagine it. I walked out without speaking to anyone; I had to clear my head. They did it over and over and over again. It’s astounding. It’s courageous. To the cast of “We Are Proud to Present…”–Aaron Bell, Marcus Briddell, Abigail Garber, Christopher Garofalo, Jeremy Konopka, Candace C. Moore–I say congratulations. And thank you for your courage to make art no matter what it costs or where it takes you. You represent the best of UArts.

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Starting again

Sorry for the long silence. All of us here at UArts–faculty, students, and staff–have been busy with the start of the academic year.

We welcomed hundreds of new students and a terrific group of new faculty two weeks ago. Including teachers and learners attracted by novel programs like Film and Media Studies and Advertising Design, by existing programs that have been re-considered and re-invented like Illustration, or by new courses like Collaborative Studios, a component of our University Common Curriculum.

These innovations follow many others that have launched in the last few years: a Creative Writing major, a program in Music Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology, and a new approach to dance education and training that may just revolutionize the field.

Meanwhile, our Corzo Center for the Creative Economy has become the premiere training ground for artist-entrepreneurs and is seeding new business ventures developed by our students and alumni. And it’s spreading the gospel of entrepreneurship by partnering with the Curtis Institute, Drexel University, the Center for Emerging Visual Artists, and more.

I can’t believe what this community has accomplished, continues to accomplish. UArts–thanks to its endlessly creative and energetic faculty and its insatiably hungry artist-students–is a bubbling crucible of invention. Not only in the studio or on the stage but in the classroom and the meeting room. These artists from a multitude of disciplines are colliding with one another every day–learning, exchanging, challenging, inspiring, making.

I’m humbled by what I see around me and proud to play a small part in it. Welcome back, UArts! Here’s to another year of unbridled, impolite, messy, glorious invention!

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UArts=Philly Arts!

I was leafing through the FringeArts calendar recently. (By the way, it’s a terrific festival. I’m especially excited about New Paradise LabsThe Adults, Castellucci’s Four Seasons Restaurant, and Half Straddle’s In the Pony Palace. Check them out!)

I noticed a recurring motif: UArts faculty, students, and alumni in the lists of performers and directors accompanying each show. The Adults–presented by one of Philly’s (and, in my view, the country’s) most exciting and inventive companies features Matteo Jones Scammell onstage and Sam Tower behind the scenes as assistant director. Recent dance graduates Kali Page, Kelsey Ludwig, Amanda Kmett’Pendry, Erin McDowell, Dare Harlow, and faculty member Meredith Glisson dominate the cast of Four Seasons Restaurant.

Alumni Gunnar Montana and Brian Sanders–festival favorites year-in and year-out–can be found with new dance-theater work in the Neighborhood Fringe. Jen Childs–UArts graduate–appears in Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges. Professor Aaron Cromie directs the Body Lautrec at the Mutter Museum.

And the list goes on. I could only begin to tally the impact of the UArts community on FringeArts–and, by extension, the Philadelphia performance scene. In fact, I stopped trying when I noticed the Institute of Contemporary Art show later this fall featuring the work of alumni Jayson Musson and Alex Da Corte. And the opening show of the Wilma Theater season, directed by Brind School of Theater Director Joanna Settle. And Opera Philadelphia’s 40th anniversary gala starring School of Music grad Stephen Costello.

Whatever the field–theater, dance, music, fine art, media, or design–UArts is there. And this fall isn’t exceptional. It’s true every year: UArts students, alumni and faculty literally everywhere in the arts in Philadelphia. It’s remarkable–a testament to the extraordinary talent and commitment of this community to artmaking. I couldn’t be prouder.

UArts=Philly Arts!



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What the artists of the future need…

I was lucky during the week of my first blog post to meet Ruby Lerner, founder and president of Creative Capital, an organization that provides grants and other support for artists pursuing innovative projects. Check out Ruby’s work at or follow @creativecap.

Ruby observed that the artists Creative Capital supports are working at the intersections of disciplines, and the work they’re making requires not just great vision and immense technical skill but also the ability to wrangle collaborators and materials and equipment and venues. She wondered what schools were preparing young creative people to become artists in this brave new world.

I know we’re not alone, but UArts is surely one of those schools. We believe that artists need deep training in their chosen fields. But they also need the freedom to range widely, to explore the margins of their art forms and beyond, to find the inspiration and the tools and the collaborators they need—wherever those may be—in order to make the work they dream of making.

In this blog, I hope to tell some of the stories of our students, our faculty and our graduates and the exciting work they’re producing inside and outside the classroom and studio, work that often defies categorization. In telling these stories, I hope to show how this school is helping to re-define arts education for the 21st century.

Thanks for reading.

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Sean Buffington, UArts President

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