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 served as principal and professor in the School of Theater, Film, and Television and spearheaded arts and medical initiatives. Prior to Arizona, he was Professor of Movement, Voice, and Drama at Pennsylvania State University, where he taught and researched 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 researching and creating targeted art and science projects for subsequent funding and presentation. in national and international locations.
Belser discussed his new job and plans for college.
What interested you about this position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln?
So many things drew me to this position. Among the college’s easily recognizable strengths: the quality of the curriculum, engagement, and research; strong faculty in college programs; leadership’s longstanding vision to raise substantial endowments; and the foresight to take a national/international leadership role in understanding how emerging technologies are changing arts industries, careers, creative processes and training.
Through speaking with faculty, staff, students, and university administrators, I have experienced a palpable human-centered vision at the University of Nebraska, which is very appealing to me.
What does an excellent college of fine and performing arts look like to you?
This is a formidable question that has preoccupied higher education arts administrators for at least the past two decades. If you look broadly across all industries, the opportunities for students engaging with our education seem to be increasing, but many of those opportunities are moving away from traditional arts-based fields and into emerging cultural spaces. Our challenge now must be to reorient our training to match these opportunities. Above all, 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 first seek to understand where the opportunities lie for young artists and should seek to partner with and learn from a wide range of organizations civil, industrial and multimedia sectors that all deal with a changing world. My dream for college would be to train young people for flexible and creative careers and to be recognized as a leading role model for what contemporary arts education can look like.
What are you most looking forward to doing in your freshman year at Nebraska?
Meet people and learn from them. I look 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 so strong and learn from those who have been here to make it happen. I also look forward to meeting our donors, alumni, and board members to learn about their particular passions and ideas for the college.
Like many during the pandemic, I have missed the communal experience of joining other audiences to attend performances, screenings, talks and other artistic activities. Now I can satisfy my desire by being part of the public in my new home.
What is your message to the rest of the campus and to other external partners, in terms of collaboration opportunities?
Imagining and cultivating interdisciplinary partnerships will be an important focus for the college. Nationally and internationally, the arts are at the forefront and joining broad partnerships that can include areas such as wellness and healthcare, creative place-making, and environmental sustainability. Public and private funders demand that artists 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 has long occurred within the creative industries. The arts and media industries are creating markets for skilled artists and storytellers with astonishing speed. Our curriculum should help students understand how disciplines become fluid and adaptable. While the fundamentals of theory and practice in professional arts education have never been more important, learning must be married to deep reflection across all disciplines. Multidisciplinary thinking is not just a curricular or aesthetic choice, but an ethical mandate in arts education if we are to prepare students to learn how to create flexible careers in industries that blur disciplinary boundaries at lightning speed.
What kind of students do you want to recruit at Hixson-Lied College?
This question is about what we want the regional and national “brand identity” of our college to be. The qualities of this identity are closely tied to a college-wide strategic planning effort that we will be undertaking in my freshman year. Answers must be found through collaborative thinking and discussion. I am inclined to be known as a place that helps young artists and arts educators envision broad cultural impact in their careers. I believe that our mission must be to develop our students’ imaginations for what a creative life might look like and to invite them to train with us towards such a life which might be very different from what they imagine when they come to us. In this regard, our Emerging Media Arts program is nothing short of a national treasure. Even the word “emergent” indicates exactly how we want our students to envision how they will apply creative skills in areas and spaces between areas that don’t even exist yet.
What is your message to Hixson-Lied College alumni?
Alumni are the lifeblood of our college and are often the most powerful storytellers of their time studying with us. I look forward to bringing alumni together at regional events where we can share stories and ideas of how alumni can continue to engage as mentors and ambassadors for the college’s strong programs.
What are your plans for continuing to make the college more inclusive and diverse?
Action towards sustainable infrastructure and culture change must be our goal in promoting inclusive excellence in higher education. While some infrastructure change can happen quickly, experts in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion confirm that infrastructure and culture change is slow work. Performative responses will generally be seen for what they are. The substantial and important work lies in a long game of culture change forged by an enduring commitment to stating measurable goals/outcomes and coming back to them to assess our success in a public and demonstrable way. Diversity, equity and inclusion must be part of arts education, in part because the world our students are entering will likely present them with complexities that they need help learning to navigate.
What will college success look like for you in five years?
Five years is a good start, but honestly, I think about what college will be like in 10 or 25 years.
Five years from now, I hope we will have made significant progress toward national and international prominence gained through iconic interdisciplinary programs that prepare our students to be recognized as ready for the kinds of challenges that employers often tell me. they are looking for. I also hope that in five years we will be able to adapt our already strong programs, so that we are seen by potential students, potential benefactors and external partners as a place with a forward-looking vision of artistic education. I also hope that we will be more visible by engaging with communities in Nebraska and the Midwest.
Over the next decade or two, I hope we will be seen in all arts-focused industries with a distinctive brand of arts education that produces students ready to face the contemporary world with power and confidence. Industry leaders across broad sectors of creative fields all seem to be saying some version of the same message – “Teach your students to be flexible, to have aesthetic skills and tastes, to understand creative processes and basic languages from different fields. We will teach them industry best practices and technologies that are rapidly changing.”
The industry-informed approaches I speak of implementing aim to deliver vital added value for our students. It is important to recognize that any of these changes must maintain the strengths of our existing arts education programs as essential to student learning. Nothing replaces studio work in developing young artists and designers, or the rigors of learning the research methods and contours of a field like art history, music, or theater.
A final thought?
Thirty years ago, I took a train trip across the country, and my favorite part of the trip was sitting for hours in the observation car surrounded by the great expanse of Great Plains sky. I was stunned by an immense sense of grandeur. Coming to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln also feels like a bit of a life-loop story for me. I grew up on a farm in Hershey, Pennsylvania, surrounded by a large extended family of teachers, farmers, and preachers. Serving students as part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln land grant mission is like going back to my own roots.