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Reimagining the Humanities & Arts

Innovative Collaborations with the Mellon Foundation

Story by
Gretchen Pelletier
July 2020

How do you bring the creative process into all kinds of activities in life? 

Imagination, creativity, and problem-solving are increasingly essential for any student, no matter their major or career path, and a large public research university is a rich seedbed of ideas and inspiration. This is where people from a diverse array of backgrounds can come together to explore and address some of society’s big questions through humanistic and artistic thinking. All that’s needed are opportunities to do so, which is what the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation sees in the UW College of Arts & Sciences.

Dancer in mid-air while performing with Brian Brooks Moving Company

Brian Brooks Moving Company created and performed new work at Meany Center through the Creative Fellowships Initiative.  

The College would like to graduate every student with the skills to be informed, active members of society. “Our goal,” says Catherine Cole, divisional dean of the arts, “is for young people to also seek knowledge and find meaning through artistic experience.”

To this end, the College has built a relationship with the Mellon Foundation to explore the relevance and expand the presence of humanities and arts across all disciplines. Key is the University’s standing as a leading public academic research institution in a community that is supportive of the arts.

Although the Mellon Foundation has supported UW over several decades, a robust new collaboration has taken shape, initiated on the campus side by Robert Stacey, dean of Arts & Sciences, with Kathleen Woodward, director of the University’s Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities, one of the most comprehensive humanities centers in the country. In 2015, Mellon awarded the Center $750,000 to launch cross-disciplinary programs, which helped open a door for leaders across the UW to approach Mellon.

In 2016, the University’s performing arts units — the School of Music, School of Drama, DXARTS, Department of Dance, and Meany Center for the Performing Arts — came together for the first time to pilot a large-scale experiment: Mellon awarded $750,000 to establish the Creative Fellowships Initiative to explore the nature of creative research at a top public university, supporting artists in the development of new work and integrating the performing arts into the broader curriculum. 

From this effort grew the Arts and Creativity Initiative, funded in 2019 by Mellon with $600,000 to encourage collaborations between faculty and visiting artists, spur the design of new introductory arts courses, and advance the creative process as an end in itself. The new courses, tailored to non-arts majors, foster students’ ability to think and solve in creative ways and cultivate their sense of belonging and inclusion.

All told, in 2019 the Mellon Foundation invested more than $3.3 million in the humanities and arts on campus.

Many first-year undergraduates are persuaded by peers to focus on STEM fields. To encourage them to consider other majors, $700,000 was awarded for Humanities First: An Integrated First-Year Experience for Humanities Premajors. Humanities Divisional Dean Brian Reed says, “This is for students who have expressed an interest in majoring in a humanities field.” 

It starts in the fall with a large lecture course, followed by two seminars in the winter and spring, plus events and workshops at local cultural institutions such as museums. “At the end of their first year,” says Reed, “humanities premajors will have learned about the University, their options for study here, and Seattle’s many opportunities. They’ll have learned what it means to ‘think like a humanities major,’ and how what they learn in the classroom translates into real-world impact.”

He adds, “Mellon is interested in the future of humanities education at large public institutions. Until talking with us, they hadn’t seen programs that could scale up to reach more students.” Reed and his colleagues will develop, assess, improve, and document this program over the course of several complete cycles. “Then,” he says, “we’ll share what we’ve learned with colleagues from peer institutions.”

This dissemination aspect is key to Mellon’s partnership with UW as a Research I university engaging in the highest levels of investigation and creating access for a broad range of students. While Mellon has been instrumental in launching new endeavors across the country, the Foundation is also keen on investing in leadership. 

This is why the UW’s Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies (CAIIS) was successful in its bid for a $1,820,000 Mellon award. “The UW has excellent infrastructure for Native studies,” says Chadwick Allen, Co-director of CAIIS, “so at first Mellon didn’t think we needed their support. But they realized we are situated to use funding in ways others are not.” The Pathways and Partnerships for American Indian and Indigenous Studies grant will support a bridge program for new undergraduates; partnerships with two-year colleges; research; and opportunities for students, faculty, and community partners to share knowledge.

Finally, a $1 million Mellon grant for Sustainable Cooperative Conservation Services will support paper and photograph conservation and enable collaboration among three cultural organizations on campus — the UW Libraries, Henry Art Gallery, and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture — and across academia.

All told, in 2019 the Mellon Foundation invested more than $3.3 million in the humanities and arts on campus.