Gray Center to continue bold collaborations between artists, scholars

In its first three years, the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry has made possible everything from a conference featuring the world’s leading cartoonists in dialogue with each other and a cross-section of faculty; to a monthlong alternate reality game involving students, a professor of English and an experimental phenomenologist from Montreal; to a yearlong collaborative exploration of low-level light undertaken by a distinguished physicist and an award-winning architect.


The tradition of fearless experimentation will continue at the Gray Center in years to come, thanks to the reappointment of David Levin as director and a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Levin, a dramaturg and scholar of German literature, opera, film and performance, has led the collaborative, arts-focused center since its founding in 2011. The Gray Center is named for prominent Chicago philanthropists Richard and Mary L. Gray in recognition of their $5 million gift to the University to found the experimental center that bears their name.

“In just three years, the Gray Center has redefined the ways artists and scholars collaborate at the University of Chicago,” said Provost Eric Isaacs. “David Levin’s vision has been essential to the program’s success, and his reappointment will allow the Gray Center to continue to grow and experiment in interesting and exciting ways for years to come.”

Levin’s reappointment comes on the heels of another major milestone for the center. In June, the Gray Center received $1.5 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to continue its signature program, the Mellon Collaborative Fellowships for Arts Practice and Scholarship. The program dates back to the founding of the Gray Center, when the Mellon Foundation awarded an initial grant of $1.35 million to inaugurate the program of experimental collaborations between artists and scholars.

The Mellon Fellowship program pairs accomplished artists and distinguished scholars from all fields for experimental collaborations that are designed to be transformative for all participants involved.

“At the University of Chicago, we believe the arts are not simply an object of scholarly study—the arts can themselves be a form of inquiry and as such can shape and reshape the research of our faculty members,” said Larry Zbikowski, deputy provost for the Arts at UChicago. “And yet, the possible forms that such inquiry might take remains very much an open question. The Gray Center has very quickly established itself as a place where that question is raised and addressed with energy, imagination and invention. The implications are profound—for a new understanding of the relationship between art and scholarship at our university, and far beyond.”

Over the course of the past two and a half years, the Mellon Fellowship program has produced a rich array of collaborative projects. These include sociologist Kristen Schilt’s collaboration with multimedia artist Chase Joynt on a set of multimedia installations, performances and events exploring public narratives about transgender identities; and artist Catherine Sullivan’s collaboration with director Sean Griffin and composer and musicologist George Lewis on an experimental opera based on Lewis’ book A Power Stronger than Itself: the AACM and American Experimental Music.

The coming year’s projects engage equally rich topics. Political scientist Cathy Cohen, New York-based filmmaker Orlando Bagwell and Chicago-based sculptor Garland Taylor will develop a project that investigates how representations of blackness, death and violence mark this particular neoliberal moment; cinema studies professor D.N. Rodowick and Paris-based artist and media theorist Victor Burgin will examine the relationship between memory and urban space on the near South Side of Chicago through the creation of site-specific audiovisual installations; and Hebrew literature scholar Na’ama Rokem, linguist Anastasia Giannakidou and award-winning Palestinian-Israeli novelist Sayed Kashua will explore the possibilities and limits of bilingualism.

These projects are selected and guided by an interdisciplinary advisory council comprised of faculty and arts professionals from across the University, as well as the Gray Center’s curator, Leslie Buxbaum Danzig.

Scholars and artists alike say they embrace the challenge of approaching their work in new ways. Patrick Jagoda and experimental phenomenologist Sha Xin Wei designed the final symposium for their collaboration on transmedia gaming, Play as Inquiry, as a series of immersive games.

“One of the aspects of the Gray Center that I find most admirable is the flexible and improvisational process it encourages,” Jagoda said of his experience as a Mellon fellow at the Gray Center. “Too many arts fellowships require a fully-formed project to be proposed at the outset. The Gray Center’s emphasis on ongoing process enabled my ‘Pervasive Play’ project team to be responsive to emerging circumstances. As a result, we were able to remain ‘experimental’ in practice—and not merely in name.”

Pushing scholars and artists towards that kind of adventurousness is one of Levin’s primary goals for the Gray Center.

“If we’re successful, what happens at the Gray Center today is not the same as what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow,” said Levin, the Addie Clark Harding Professor in Germanic Studies, Cinema and Media Studies, Theater and Performance Studies, and the College. “And that seems entirely in keeping with the experimental spirit that Richard and Mary Gray feel is so essential to the initiative.”

Last year, the Mellon Fellows had a new resource at their disposal—the Gray Center Lab. The 1,100 square foot space in Midway Studios can be reconfigured as a classroom, studio, collaborative workspace or exhibition and performance space. Newcity named the space Chicago’s best new venue for experimental arts.

Despite the diversity of teams and topics, the Mellon Fellowships have one thing in common—each features a team-taught course that serves as an exploratory forum for and extension of the collaboration. These courses enable University of Chicago students to participate in the collaboration and contribute to it: students in Jagoda and Sha’s course on transmedia games helped to design an alternate reality game that unfolded throughout April 2013.

Over the next three years, the Gray Center will create additional opportunities for students through the Mellon Fellows program. Beginning this year, the Gray Center will offer internships for graduate students, enabling them to provide artistic and research assistance to the scholar-artist teams.

As the Gray Center becomes more ingrained in the life of the University, Levin emphasized that he is committed to its continued evolution.

“How is it that the Gray Center and the University of Chicago have emerged, over the course of the past few years, as a creative incubator where artists and scholars experiment with new forms of collaboration, re-imagining and reinventing the relationship between scholarship and artistic practice?” he asked. “This has transpired thanks to the extraordinary vision and generosity of Richard and Mary Gray, the largesse of the Mellon Foundation and the concerted efforts of the Gray Center’s brilliant staff and our extraordinary advisory council. Just as this initiative represented an experiment when it began in 2011, the Gray Center and the Mellon Fellowship program remain very much an experiment and a work in progress.”