With the proposed conversion of the Nicholls Biondi studio into a fitness center, the administration attempted to demonstrate true concern for student well-being while acknowledging the current lack of accessible exercise spaces. However, it did so at the expense of one of the few useful facilities for dance rehearsal on campus, depriving the arts community of already scant space. The instant and loud backlash from dancers and artists against the decision reflects the longstanding failure of administration to communicate effectively with the entire student body and its tendency to make decisions without representative student consultation — only to revert those decisions upon what must feel like inevitable backlash.
The extent of the backlash also reflects a more basic fact about campus facilities: the space available to students is finite. The limited amount of accessible space is perhaps best understood by the various campus arts groups who have to fight every time they want to practice or perform. Last semester alone, students put on plays in the Friedmann Room, the Red Room, and the Octagon, spaces which, besides being definitively not theaters, were often unnecessarily difficult to use as rehearsal spaces. And the outcry from dance groups at the proposed changes to Nicholls Biondi makes it painfully obvious that the Amherst campus does not provide an adequate amount of space for student arts groups.
The limited nature of space for arts and the announcement of a further restricting of those spaces resonates with many students as reflective of the administration’s general sentiment towards arts on campus: outside of their academic departments, they appear to not really care. However, for many of us on campus, the arts are essential to the way we experience life. Thereby the arts are incredibly valuable, not only to the college’s environment, but to every person who practices them on campus and off. Right now, there is a huge lack of artistic resources available, and providing even enough space for students would be a start towards genuine progress.
The new Student Center provides an opportunity for long-term remedy. If space were included in the new building, Green Room and independent productions would feel less constrained by their inability to use Theater Department facilites. A dance studio and practice rooms would provide space for students who are perpetually clamoring for space, and even allow for the growth of arts on campus outside of just the academic realm. The lack of reliable access to space which is either in high demand by student groups, like Nicholls Biondi, or restricted to members of a department, like campus practice rooms, discourages students from pursuing art. Even those who arrive on campus with an artistic pursuit but who don’t join pre-ordained groups are incentivized to practice less, to drop their pursuit. More space will allow for less restriction and encourage more students to do art in whatever form they want — a goal that is certainly worth pursuing.
Physical construction of new space, however, is both far in the future and totally uncertain. Right now, dance classes take place in academic buildings like Webster, the Theater Department uses three different theater spaces on campus, and Music has practice rooms and a recital hall in Arms and the Stearns-James basement. These spaces are restricted exclusively to members of their respective departments, and are commonly used for jazz combos, dance classes, and student thesis-performances. However, those spaces remain unused for the majority of the school year and represent a physical divide between academic and extracurricular spaces for artistic endeavor. Restricting artistic space entirely to the few students who devote themselves to an artistic major restricts implicitly general access to art. It is clear that majors should get preferential treatment when it comes to department-managed space, but students should be able to request that space when it can be made available. De-restricting places like the basement practice rooms in this way would be a major step towards not just the inclusion of students who want to pursue art, but supporting their own artistic exercise as well.
The health and well-being of students is certainly benefited by easy access to exercise equipment. But artistic pursuits at a casual level, from playing an instrument to singing or dancing, are instrumental for many students’ mental health. The Nicholls Biondi refit, while it is a measure designed to help the mental health of the student body, actively inhibits students’ access to the arts. Extracurricular space on campus is a limited resource, and no matter what decision the college makes, it will have consequences. But when decisions affecting extracurricular space must be made, we ask that the administration considers the arts — doing so signals a commitment to the arts at Amherst that goes beyond rhetoric.