Pioneers of a New Frontier: Opening Convocation Address by Jeffrey S. Kimpton

Opening Convocation of the 50th Year
September 3, 2011
"Pioneers of a New Frontier"
Jeffrey Kimpton, President

Good evening and welcome to Interlochen Center for the Arts. On behalf of the entire Interlochen community, our Board of Trustees, our Academy faculty, staff, students, alumni, friends and family joining us here in Corson Auditorium and around the world via live webcast, welcome to the first program of the 50th year of Interlochen Arts Academy and the 85th year of Interlochen Center for the Arts.

This evening, we arrive, ready to teach and learn; to create or interpret millions of notes, words, movements, create with oils and clay, to tell stories through film and express ourselves through more than 250 performances and presentations of your work. You will share experiences and create memories in the company of some of the most talented students from around the country and around the globe. You will be challenged by an artist-teacher faculty and dedicated staff of a quality rare for an American educational institution. You are about to begin an experience that will forever make the arts matter in your life, define your role in the arts as creator, performer, advocate, citizen, and leader, and form deep and lasting friendships for the rest of your life. This is Interlochen Arts Academy, the most amazing high school in America, and we welcome you here.

The past 18 months of preparation for the beginning of this year, and this 50th anniversary have been busy. In some respects we will have a year like any other, one in which your work as students and your success as artists will be central to our work at the Academy. We will continue to share over 400 performances in seven disciplines together, you will go to class and take tests, we will have great fun and work hard, and - it will snow. 

Some things will be different: our first year ever on a Monday through Friday schedule, the installation of “classrooms of the future” in each of our major buildings, the use of a new software program called Aspen that links you to faculty and parents.

And there will be celebrations too: the concourse cases are beginning to come alive with photos, video and audio, all part of “digital concourse” of the last 49 years that will go online in January. Throughout this year we will be visited by distinguished alumni returning to campus to perform and speak, many of you will travel on a series of tours across the country sharing your work and achievements, there will many special performances and activities in every discipline, and we will conclude with a weekend graduation ceremony that will celebrate the 50th class, the Class of 2012, and will also be a reunion for all 49 classes that have come before you.  It will be a year to remember.

At this moment in history for Interlochen, and for the Academy, I’ve been thinking about what I could say this evening that would put the significance of this year and our history in context with our future.  I am a firm believer that the history of an organization is the key to its future, so I’ve taken time this summer to review how this all began, and what it means to us. In that process of research and reflection I began to get a sense of the remarkable achievement that it was to create the Academy, against tremendous odds, deep skepticism, no money, and with deep political battles by a summer staff sure that a new Academy would soon eclipse the importance of Interlochen summer programs.

Let’s turn the clock back 49 years, to a warm evening, September 9, 1962. Opening convocation was held in the Fine Arts building, which at the time was the lone indoor performance space on campus large enough to hold everyone.

At that first convocation President Joseph Maddy gave remarks with the title “Pioneers of a New Frontier,” and I return to that title this evening to frame my thoughts. 

Maddy chose his title carefully, for the words “new frontier” had become important words of change for the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who used them for the first time in his acceptance speech as the candidate for president at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. This is what Kennedy said: 

“We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier - the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. ... Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”

The creation of the Academy was another kind of new frontier, and Maddy used Kennedy’s metaphor of change to challenge the newly assembled Academy community to forge a new frontier in arts education.

For everyone this was a huge risk, one that had taken years of planning and politicking to create, and surely Maddy himself faced the greatest risk. He had harbored a not-so-secret dream of a high school since the early days of Interlochen Arts Camp in the 1930s, thirty years earlier, and was driven by a deep desire to prove that the arts were essential to the education of American youth.

The trustees had denied Maddy his dream of a boarding high school for nearly a decade, partially because of their fear that it would bankrupt the institution, and their skepticism that few would want to spend their high school years in the winter in the middle of the northern Michigan woods. Maddy was relentless throughout the 1950s, building dormitories and new facilities for Camp … that just so happened to be heated ready for year-round use. In a desire to counter the trustees’ concerns about the winter, he went so far as to propose that the Camp remain in Michigan, and a second campus be built for the Academy in Florida! Well, that part didn’t quite work out so well!

Finally the trustees agreed that if he could obtain a year’s operating money, $300,000 in advance, they would allow the Academy to open. They thought it would be impossible to find that kind of money. Without those funds they were sure the dream would finally die. 

Through a mutual friend Maddy met W. Clement Stone, a very wealthy Chicago insurance executive and real estate tycoon. Maddy and Stone were cut from the same cloth, American success stories coming from literally nothing, hard driving, hard working, visionary and unstoppable individuals. Maddy had a three hour dinner with Stone in 1961, and the next day Stone delivered a check for $300,000 to Maddy’s hotel to cover the cost of that first year. There was no promise of additional support from Stone.  

The campus began to quickly change: the rotundas and academic classroom buildings were built and were connected by a concourse to protect everyone from winter weather. Another dormitory was added, and two others linked by a lobby space. 

Jessie V. Stone Center was built and named after Clement Stone’s wife, the first all-purpose gymnasium and auditorium for the Academy until Corson was built in 1975.

How exciting, and how dangerous it was for those taking this risk. The journey that began that September evening in 1962 was entirely unpredictable as to its outcome. What was going through their minds?  The trustees, whose bluff had been called, were now responsible for a bold and risky venture. What did the first faculty think? They gave up jobs to come to teach at Interlochen not knowing whether their jobs were for one year, or many. The first students, 150 of them, most with Interlochen Arts Camp experience, chose to leave family and friends for a high school with no previous reputation. And the parents who sent their children to what was essentially an experimental boarding school … what were they all thinking? 

The Academy started like no other high school in the country. The first public performance of the “Academy” came one month before it officially opened, in mid-August, when students from the Camp’s World Youth Symphony Orchestra and dancers, most who would be attending the Academy a few weeks later, traveled to the White House to play a concert on the south lawn for President Kennedy and invited guests. What an auspicious occasion: the author of the words new frontier met the young pioneers of a new frontier in the arts.

The rest is history, truly an “only in America” kind of story. The Academy was a tremendous artistic success and quickly gained fame; the students traveled the state of Michigan and the country that first year showing what they could do. The millionaire Stone then proceeded to fund the deficit of the Academy for the next 25 years, allowing it to stand securely on its own two feet. The Academy spawned a national trend in specialized high schools in the arts that changed the face of arts education in American schools. Those first graduates became the first of 9000 who took Interlochen to the forefront of arts leadership. Tonight we can tell these visionary, daring pioneers that they made the right choice, and that because of their courage we are strong, vibrant, changing, adapting, that we continue to create a remarkable community based on the highest quality--and equality--of the arts and academics. 

This 50th year will be split into two parts. The first part of the celebration, which officially starts in January 2012, will look back and celebrate our achievements. The second half of the celebration, during the first semester of the 51st year in Fall 2012, looks ahead, for there is little point in celebrating history unless you apply it to the future. If the first 50 years are the foundation for the next 50, what are the changes in the arts we must anticipate? How will they be created, performed, shared, consumed? How will we collaborate, and most importantly, what does this mean for arts education?

In thinking of this I wondered: what would the Academy look like if we created it right now, today, from scratch? Where would we be located? What would our programs look like? Would the curriculum be different? How would we share our achievements? In an entirely new Academy, what might be different, unfettered by history, tradition or convention? 

Today’s Interlochen was selected for several reasons: a site in the center of a country moving quickly west in the late 1920’s, a wooded setting since Interlochen was first a camp, and it was the right price! If we were to create the Academy today, we would still be located in the woods, but likely within a short drive to a major metropolitan arts center, with easier access to professional arts organizations, a larger employee pool, major media outlets and transportation centers. I doubt that our founder ever thought we would have nearly 25% of our students from outside the United States, or from every one of the 50 states.

That said, I have a news flash: we are not moving. Our location and this setting are primary factors for our ability to concentrate and build this remarkable community year after year. But a new Academy in 2011 would have to speak to our need to connect young artists with great art at a very different level, sharing our achievements more regularly away from campus, seeing the arts in action as a means of identifying innovations in creating and performing our own work on campus. Our future, in fact, demands that we act like we are located near New York or London, and thus, we must support more frequent student and faculty travel and a larger touring program, the establishment of more partnerships with national and international organizations, and use new technologies to take us more easily to places where we can share what we do and what we learn from others around the world, yet sitting in Mott, Harvey or Frohlich. 

This year we will see the arrival of our first visiting students and faculty from Shanghai and Singapore, and the first Interlochen students and faculty will travel there this year. We are about to make a greater investment through the creation of our classrooms of the future and virtual broadcast centers in various places on campus to aid our virtual touring and learning. Might our future include a special January term where we organize trips to major arts centers, here and around the world, and bring those experiences back to our own work on this Campus?

If we were to found the Academy in 2011, would our curriculum be any different than it is today? How would we balance the critical components of the development of craft and skill, history and context in an entirely new Academy at a time of remarkable artistic creativity and diversity far different than 1962? As we look at the new ways that art is being created, new collaborations, new tools in technology and media, what is the juxtaposition of that which is new with those time-honored traditions in learning in the arts that are the foundation of artistic learning? As we watch people in every discipline form deep and interesting collaborations with other artists and other art forms, what impact would that have on a new Academy?

A new Academy would likely have a very different access to technology built directly into its buildings. That’s why we’ve moving quickly to update this campus, creating new opportunities for sharing and collaboration. But that does not mean that we will abandon the need to study 2D and 3D in visual art, Shakespeare sonnets and sentence structure in poetry or short stories, major, minor, subdominants and the Baroque and Romantic periods in music, the classics in American and British literature, or the basic elements in chemistry or Nadji’s catapult. It is the application of those essential foundations of each art and academic discipline through new ways of sharing and collaborating that is different between the Academy of 50 years ago and 2011. That overlap and extension of the arts into other arts, these new interdisciplinary connections, were some of the reasons behind our addition of the motion picture arts program six years ago, the comparative arts program last year, our ongoing work with Project Zero, and our exploration of possible new areas of study such as singer-songwriter, animation, recording arts and design.

Regardless of campus location, where or when that experience takes place, regardless of what parts of the curriculum might change, what technology and media we might use to learn, create, share and collaborate, in spite of all that, who we are as a community, and what we stand for and expect from you as students and faculty, and from Interlochen as an institution, will never change. Our process of learning and creating may change, but our passion for the arts, and for our work in the arts, will never change. No matter what year, this community will be as strong in 50 years as it is today. These are the extraordinary experiences and relationships that have remained constant over time, that have been the foundation for our success, and will be the foundation of our success in the future.

Yes, this will be a year of remembrance and celebration. But it is also a year of a new beginning, and you are the new pioneers of new frontiers who will take us there.

Welcome to the 50th year of Interlochen Arts Academy.