Last Thursday, hordes of students invaded the normally tranquil Arts District, Cantor Arts Center, the Anderson Collection, and the brand new McMurtry Building as Party on the Edge marked the start of the year for the arts on campus. Party on the Edge has the unique ability to gather students in these spaces of art, disrupting the all-too solitary way we often think of both creation and consumption, and allowing a truly engaged, and physically present, arts community to emerge, if only for one night. This year’s party, the 17th of its kind, featured performances by a capella groups and dance teams, DJs, free food, and some colored outdoor lights that should honestly become a permanent feature.
Seeing everyone rolling out for “the arts” as an entity, and in support of the individuals who make up Stanford’s creative scene is exciting. On a campus with so much focus on STEM, but with such amazing resources, faculty, and students in the arts, it’s nice to have a night to showcase the creative forces among us.
But for an event held mainly at the Cantor Arts Center, the hub of visual arts on campus, Party on the Edge had a palpable lack of visual arts-related programming. Performing arts took center stage, understandably. It’s easy to showcase a capella groups and dance teams in an immediately engaging format–it takes a stage and a schedule. A painting, however, cannot fill a time slot; a photograph cannot attract a crowd of hundreds, and a sculpture did not live in my freshman dorm. These static, non-performative pieces are more difficult to program around, more individual and contemplative in nature, and simply less fun for most people. However, these media are still relevant, and deserve to be celebrated on their own terms. Party on the Edge at times reduced the galleries of the Cantor Arts Center and the Anderson Collection to backdrops in service of the performers.
With the wealth of performers on campus, it’d be unthinkable to ask any of them to take a backseat to the works inside the museums. However, the dilemma of how to balance the presentation of the immediate, personal performative art created by people we know, and more distant objects, produced by absent artists and located away from central stages and lawns. These works seem like afterthoughts in the current setup of Party on the Edge, while performances and other festivities kept audiences away from the galleries.
Party on the Edge made a fabulous display of the arts resources and communities on campus, but the festivities ended at the gallery doors. Obviously, hosting a dance party or parking a food truck next to the Stanford family’s portraits isn’t practical, but I would have liked to see the organizers facilitate more thoughtful engagement with the works inside the museums. The vibrant, exciting events happening on the margins of the galleries could have served as entry points into the larger collections.
This problem, the difficulty of blending meaningful consideration of art objects with a celebratory, exciting atmosphere is by no means unique to Party on the Edge. How can we make art history and criticism, with all its stuffy, bougie baggage, accessible to casual viewers? And how can we do that without being either condescending or overly precious? No institution should have the ego to think of itself as a savior, bringing the word of god to the unwashed masses, but it’s still important to facilitate a connection between the visual arts and their viewers. Art can be a seemingly impenetrable topic, but the rewards of sustained looking and thinking are immensely beneficial. Much of Party on the Edge benefits from the disruption of the archetype of the museum as a sterile, untouchable palace of intellectual elitism. If its organizers could find a way to bring this vibrant, fun attitude inside the galleries, Party on the Edge could offer a more balanced showcase of Stanford’s complete array of artistic resources, while also making the visual arts as a whole, and our on-campus museums in particular, more accessible.