On July 11, Andrew (Andy) Belser became the fifth dean of the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts.
Belser comes to Nebraska from the University of Arizona, where he was director and professor in the School of Theatre, Film and Television and led arts and medicine initiatives. Prior to Arizona, he was a professor of movement, voice and acting at Pennsylvania State University, where he taught and researched at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and performance. He was also founding director of the Arts and Design Research Incubator, where he mentored artists, designers and scientists in the research and creation of art and science projects targeted for further funding and presentation at national and international venues.
Belser discussed his new job and his plans for the college.
What interested you in this position at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln?
So many things attracted me to this position. Among the easily recognizable strengths of the college: the quality of the curricular, engagement and research programs; strong faculty in programs across the college; the longstanding leadership vision to raise substantial endowments; and the foresight to occupy a national/international leadership role in understanding how emerging technologies are changing arts industries, careers, creative processes and training.
As I talked with the college faculty, staff, students and university administrators, I experienced a palpable human-centered vision at the University of Nebraska, which appeals to me very much.
What does an excellent college of fine and performing arts look like to you?
This is a terrific question and one that has been on the minds of higher education arts administrators for at least the past two decades. If you look broadly across industries, opportunities for students who engage in our training seem to be increasing, but many of those opportunities are shifting away from traditional arts-based fields and into emerging cultural spaces. Our challenge must now be to shift our training to match those opportunities. Importantly, this does not mean throwing away or diminishing our strengths in the fundamentals of traditional artistic training. Rather, a contemporary college of fine and performing arts should seek first to understand where the opportunities are for young artists and should look to partner with and learn from a broad range of organizations in civil, industry, and multimedia sectors that are all dealing with a changing world. My dream for the college would be to train young people for flexible and creative careers and to be recognized as a leading model for what contemporary arts training can look like.
What are you most looking forward to doing in your first year at Nebraska?
Meeting people and learning from them. I am looking forward to spending time with faculty, staff and students in classes, performances, discussions and planning sessions. I want to experience firsthand how this college has grown to be so strong, and to learn from those who have been here making that happen. I am also looking forward to meeting with our donors, alumni and board members to learn their particular passions and ideas for the college.
Like many during the pandemic, I have missed the communal experience of joining with others in audiences to attend performances, showings, lectures and other artistic activities. Now, I get to satisfy my longing through being a part of audiences in my new home.
What is your message to the rest of the campus and other external partners, in terms of opportunities for collaborations?
Imagining and cultivating cross-disciplinary partnerships will be an important focus for the college. Nationally and internationally, the arts are leading and joining in broad partnerships that may include areas such as wellness and healthcare, creative placemaking and environmental sustainability. Public and private funders alike are calling for artists to be at the center of impactful research and engagement.
These partnerships are also likely to include significant collaborations with national industry partners where the mixing and crossing of disciplines have been happening within creative industries for a long time. Arts and media industries are creating markets for skilled artists and storytellers at an astonishing speed. Our curriculum must help students understand how disciplines are becoming fluid and adaptable. While fundamentals of theory and practice within professional arts training have never been more important, learning must be married with expansive thinking across disciplines. Multi-disciplinary thinking is not just some curricular or aesthetic choice, but an ethical mandate in arts education if we are to prepare students to learn to create flexible careers in industries that are blurring disciplinary boundaries with dazzling speed.
What kind of students do you want to recruit to the Hixson-Lied College?
This question goes to what we want our college’s regional and national “brand identity” to be. The qualities of this identity are importantly tied to a college-wide strategic planning endeavor that we will be undertaking in my first year. The answers must be found through collaborative thinking and discussion. I am inclined toward being known as a place that helps young artists and arts educators to imagine broad cultural impact in their careers. I believe our mission must be to grow our students’ imaginations for what a creative life might look like, and to invite them to train with us toward such a life that might look very different than what they imagine as they come to us. In this regard, our Emerging Media Arts program is no less than a national treasure. Even the word “emerging” names exactly how we want our students to consider the way they will apply creative skills in fields and spaces between fields that do not even exist yet.
What is your message to the alumni of the Hixson-Lied College?
Alumni are the lifeblood of our college and are often the most powerful storytellers about their time studying with us. I look forward to gathering alumni at regional events where we can share stories and ideas about how alumni can continue to be involved as mentors and ambassadors for the college’s robust programs.
What are your plans to continue to make the college more inclusive and diverse?
Action toward sustainable infrastructure and culture change must be our focus in promoting inclusive excellence in higher education. While some infrastructure change might happen quickly, experts in the diversity, equity and inclusion space confirm that changing infrastructure and culture is slow work. Performative responses will generally be seen for what they are. The substantive and important work lies in a long game of culture change wrought by an enduring commitment to stating measurable goals/outcomes and returning to them to assess our success in demonstrable, public ways. Diversity, equity and inclusion must be a part of arts education, in part, because the world that our students are entering will likely present them with complexities that they need help learning to address.
What will success for the college look like for you in five years?
Five years is a good start, but honestly, I think about what the college will look like in 10 or 25 years.
In five years, I am hoping that we will have made some significant progress toward national and international prominence gained through signature interdisciplinary programs that prepare our students to be known as ready to tackle the sorts of challenges that employers often tell me they are looking for. I would also hope that five years from now, we are able to adapt our already-strong curricula, so we are viewed by prospective students, potential benefactors and external partners as a place with a forward-looking vision for arts education. I also hope that we will be more visible through engaging with communities across Nebraska and across the Midwest.
In the next decade or two, I hope that we are viewed throughout arts-based industries with a signature brand of arts education that trains students who are ready to meet the contemporary world with power and confidence. Industry leaders across broad sectors of creative fields all seem to say a version of the same message — “Teach your students to be flexible, to have aesthetic skills and taste, to understand creative processes and basic languages of different fields. We will teach them the rapidly changing industry best practices and technologies.”
The industry-informed approaches I am talking about implementing are aimed at offering vital added value for our students. It’s important to recognize that any of these changes must hold the strengths of our existing arts-training programs as vital to student learning. There is no substitute for studio work in developing young artists and designers, or for the rigors of learning research methods and the contours of a field like art, music or theatre history.
Any final thoughts?
Thirty years ago, I took a cross-country train trip, and my favorite part of the trip was sitting for hours in the observation car surrounded by the big sky expanse of the Great Plains. I was stunned by an immense sense of grandeur. Coming to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln also feels a bit like a full circle life story for me. I grew up on a farm in Hershey, Pa., surrounded by a large extended family of teachers, farmers and preachers. Serving students through the land-grant mission of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln feels like a return to my own roots.