Columbia IDs are more than just building access cards and magic wielders of Flex dollars—they are every student’s Passport to New York, assuming a current term sticker is on the front.
This is thanks to the Arts Initiative, of which Melissa Smey became executive director, in addition to being director of Miller Theatre, on July 1. Still settling into her joint role, Smey talked strategy for maintaining and adding to the roster of 34 museums that students have free access to through the Passport to New York—and mourned the loss of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to that list effective Sept. 1, 2011.
“It’s a program where they’re comping free admission to every Columbia student who shows up with their CUID,” Smey said. “It’s not free to the museums to do that. It wasn’t sustainable for them [the Guggenheim] anymore, unfortunately.”
Smey continued to encourage students to go to the museum, though. “They still have student prices,” she said. “They still have pay-what-you-like on Friday evenings. It’s still one of the city’s greatest museums.” And though the Guggenheim is a notable loss, Smey said the Museum of the Moving Image and the Museum of Arts and Design both recently joined the Passport program in June and January 2011, respectively.
The cost to the museums to join the Passport raises the question of why any bother to join. “It’s an investment in the future and in building audiences for the future,” Smey said. This is a concept that she’s had plenty of experience with at Miller in her two years as its director.
“Audience development is the most important aspect of what you do,” Smey said, “The work backstage could be the finest there is, and if you don’t have an audience for it, it’s not going anywhere.”
University President Lee Bollinger and School of the Arts Dean Carol Becker had been looking to fill the head Arts Initiative position since former director Gregory Mosher stepped down last September. “I’m very glad that it went the way that it did,” Smey said. “Both the organizations have really complementary missions.” She went on to explain that while Miller attracts audiences from across the city and acts from across the world to campus, the Arts Initiative sends students out into New York. Both institutions work to tighten the ties between city and campus.
In this first term wearing her new hat, Smey plans to spend a lot of time listening to what channels into the city students want opened. “We’re going to be convening some focus groups and listening, really listening to what people want,” Smey said. “If there was some amazing museum that wasn’t on the list, and enough students had enough interest … we’d call them up and say ‘Hey, would you like to participate?’”
While she may not have Mosher’s extensive museum and art-world connections—Mosher had been with the Arts Initiative since Bollinger started the program in 2004—Smey plans to leverage her own contacts made through Miller in new ways. Smey pointed out that the Arts Initiative sends student groups to the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall, then said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could leverage some of my connections with the heads of those organizations to bring things to campus?” One example would be to get Michael Tilson Thomas from Carnegie Hall’s March 2012 concert series “American Mavericks” to come give an exclusive talk for undergraduates.
Joining two such important on-campus positions is a large consolidation of power, but Smey said, “This is not a Melissa Smey initiative—it’s a campus arts initiative.”
As for that Passport, Smey said with a chuckle, “Every Columbia student should be going to a museum once a week”—though it’s doubtful any museums will be seeing this busy director able to walk through their door any time soon.