Bringing performances to large audiences via virtual reality. Using data analysis to illuminate fair representation in a museum collection. Designing to redress inequality in wealth and housing. Amplifying the voices of Arab American writers.

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These are just a few of the first Exploration Pilot Grants awarded to staff, faculty and students as part of the presidential Arts Initiative, announced by President Mark Schlissel last fall.

The initiative kicked off its startup phase in January 2020, and put out a request for proposals to all faculty, students and staff at U-M’s three campuses in February.

“We see the pilot projects as a way to enlist the expertise of people from across the university in testing ways for the arts to elevate the many kinds of work we do: research and creative practice, teaching and learning, advocacy and community engagement,” said Jonathan Massey, dean of the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and co-chair of the Arts Initiative.

Reviewers, made up of arts leaders who are part of the initiative’s working group, selected eight projects from more than 80 submissions. Project leads reworked their proposals to accommodate the impacts of the pandemic, and initiative leadership scaled back the number and scale of projects to reflect limitations on what kinds of activity people can undertake safely, as well as budget constraints across campus.

“The final selection of projects represents a range of disciplines and contemporary concerns, including the urgent resurgence of civil rights in our society,” said Tina Olsen, U-M Museum of Art director and co-chair of the Arts Initiative. “It also provides opportunities to build alliances with campus partners, and is especially relevant to the new challenges in teaching and learning in our community.”

Due to the pandemic, the number of projects chosen and the amount of funding were scaled back from original plans with awards ranging from $7,000 to $17,000.

The working group is also planning other ways of engaging the university community in setting goals for the initiative. The first is a student-driven series of performances that will be livestreamed and available as videos in partnership with the University Musical Society and Student Life.

Another is a creative challenge at this year’s Diversity Summit in collaboration with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Academic Innovation, and the Center for Socially Engaged Design.

A third is a series of virtual events this academic year that will explore various themes on the “future of art.” Speakers and panelists will encompass students, staff and faculty, as well as acclaimed artists and experts.

“Our hope in planning this series is that audiences will get the chance to engage and confront questions like, ‘Who gets to be an artist or work in the arts in the decades to come? What do we hope arts institutions will look like in a post-pandemic and anti-racist future? What do we fear they will look like?’” said Alison Rivett, interim managing director of the Arts Initiative.

During the start-up phase over the next two and a half years, the working group will use these various activities to inform longer-term planning for the ambitious initiative, which aims to transform teaching, learning and research throughout the university in partnership with the arts.

Project awardees include:

Visualizing telematic performance

Explores methods of incorporating visual communication into real-time music-making by people in disparate geographic locations without video. John Granzow, assistant professor of music; Michael Gurevich, associate professor of performing arts technology; and Matt Albert, assistant professor of music and chair of the Department of Chamber Music, School of Music Theatre & Dance.

Fair representation in arts and in data

Analyzes representation in art through the application of algorithms to images of people in the U-M Museum of Art’s collection. Jing Liu, managing director of the Michigan Institute for Data Science; Kerby Shedden, professor of statistics, LSA, professor of biostatistics, School of Public Health, and director of the Center For Statistical Consultation and Research; David Choberka, Andrew W. Mellon Curator for University and Learning Programs, UMMA; Sophia Brueckner, assistant professor, Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design; and John Turner, senior manager of museum technology, UMMA.

Shoutout to Arab American writers

A series of events — converted to podcasts — that will promote understanding of Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim communities through literary and cultural programming. Sally Howell, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Arab American Studies, UM-Dearborn.

The art of queer health sciences

A project with students at the Stamps School of Art & Design who identify as queer to create illustrations in response to scientific visualizations with the aim of reducing sexual health inequities. Tanaka Chavanduka, research associate, Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities, School of Nursing.

Bringing down the fifth wall

Develops a system to address the challenges of delivering virtual reality performances to large audiences. Anıl Çamcı, assistant professor of performing arts technology, School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

Photocracy: Defining democracy through stories and art

A student-engagement initiative for the election year, with responses to the prompt “What does democracy mean to me?” Amy Tackitt, student affairs program manager, ArtsEngine.

Unsettling histories

The U-M Museum of Art will work with contemporary African American artist Titus Kaphar on a gallery intervention that, through the lens of race, will rethink traditional art historical classifications of its collection. Laura De Becker, Helmut and Candis Stem Curator of African Art and interim chief curator, UMMA.

Envisioning real utopias

A series of charrettes to facilitate discussions with faculty and students collaborating to design for the problem of inequality in wealth and housing. Fabian Pfeffer, associate professor and department associate chair of sociology, and Kathy Velikov, associate professor of architecture, Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning.

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