Oberlin Inter-Arts Program of ’70s Created Collaborative Environment

Alana Reibstein and Zoe Martens

In the 1970s, anti-war protests inspired a surge of change and a call for action at Oberlin College. Under President Robert Fuller’s leadership, the Inter-Arts Program emerged, a program committed to approaching artistic creation and performance through multiple mediums. The program’s mission statement reads, “We seek to probe that which is unknown and see the familiar in a new way…” stressing the program’s commitment to reimagining the ways we conceptualize art.

In 1972, former Oberlin Dance Professor and founder of the Oberlin Dance Collective Brenda Way established a home for Inter-Arts at Oberlin. She re-envisioned the Warner Gymnasium as a spacious and light-filled arena for artists to share their work and creativity. The program sought to draw artists out of their separate physical spaces and unite them in a new understanding of the arts, which coincided with existing efforts to have more interactions and collaboration between College and the Conservatory students. The program successfully brought together the departments of Dance, Theater and Visual Art in the College and the Composition department in the Conservatory. Herbert Blau, a theater artist hailing from California Institute of the Arts, directed the program.

Brenda Way explained how the Inter-Arts Program sought to break down boundaries. “[Inter-Arts challenged] the distinction between low art and high art,” she said. Students involved in Inter-Arts blurred these lines by performing in different places and contexts; meaningful art existed everywhere from Warner Gymnasium to performances on the rooftops of academic buildings. One class offered under the program, “The Inter-Arts Forum,” further challenged this distinction. The class was divided into seven modules and hosted seven different artists from the Oberlin community over the semester to facilitate workshops, discussions and performances. This course offered a common space for students to connect with one another, as well as with the Oberlin community. The Forum saw the familiar, the town of Oberlin through which students passed daily on their walks to class, in a new way. Furthermore, the emphasis on collective learning and creation reflected the ’70s spirit of collaboration and understood Oberlin as a source of artistic inspiration.

Inter-Arts offered new academic validation to art forms that were previously considered strictly extra-curricular. Dance at Oberlin in the ’60s was offered through the Physical Education department, and was not valued as a performing art. There were only two dance faculty in the late ’60s, but with massive student efforts, through petitions and meetings with administration, the College hired more faculty members. The Inter-Arts program re-defined dance as curricular, placing performance at the center and emphasizing the artistic process as a way of learning. Dance was a form that all students could learn from, even those who had no previous experience. Jean Weigl, a former member of the Oberlin Dance Collective, which developed out of Inter-Arts, described her entrance into the dance world. “I had no experience whatsoever. I was a studio arts major.” As stated in the Inter-Arts Program Review, the modern dance area was interested in “exploring movement as a communicative and inter-active form.” Oberlin became a hotbed for dance, bringing renowned artists such as Twyla Tharp, the Grand Union, and Meredith Monk for Winter Terms.

Brenda Way gave an example of the opportunities the Inter-Arts Program offered to collaborate across disciplines as an academic project when she described her collaboration with Professor of Composition, Randy Coleman. Using the “methodologies of other art forms” allowed her to explore the form she was most familiar with, choreography, from a new perspective. She used a series of musical scores Coleman had created and transposed them to dance. If the score said improvise ten seconds of trill, she asked her dancers to improvise ten seconds of fast hand movement. Similar to the social movements of the time that challenged people to look outside of their own experience, Way found inspiration outside of her form. ODC Artistic Director Kimi Okada described dancing with Way as an inspirational experience. “There is no limit to what you can do; anything is possible,” she said.

Although Inter-Arts was successful in bringing visibility to the arts at Oberlin, the appointment and leadership of Herbert Blau as director was controversial. The program faced critiques of isolationism and elitism for his practice of handpicking performers for productions. Furthermore, he received the third highest salary at Oberlin, solidifying his position that threatened the collective spirit that Inter-Arts promoted. This tension between singular leadership and the Program’s collective basis reflected the challenges of working truly collaboratively within an academic institution. Exploring the history of Inter-Arts challenges students today to continue unhinging the dichotomies of “high art” and “low art” and to continue reexamining the definition of art.