College Ave: In Lieu of an Art Museum, Put a Cultural Center

During a recent alumni weekend at Pomona College, the
alumnae and friends were provided an intriguing opportunity: to review the
current state of the College and its place in the surrounding community. Asking
the participants to use their own creativity to think about the College provided support for a continuing legacy idea, as well as a graceful request for resources under the theme of ‘daring
minds.’

This prompt challenges all of us to be more daring in how we
interpret that theme. How can Pomona build a stronger community culture? How
can it build up the ‘cultural capital’ that gives Claremont a more
distinctive brand in today’s parlance, tying in with the college’s interest
in a stronger national identification?

From the perspective of someone who has extensive experience with the public
planning process, the proposed building projects for a new art museum on
College Avenue encouraged me to re-examine those aforementioned questions. This
new structure could serve as a catalyst for realizing a broader, deeper
culture at Pomona, going beyond the mere physical construction of a building.

This is a chance for the president and others at Pomona to
come together, ultimately recasting the synergy of the Claremont Colleges. I
challenge the Pomona College community to stretch its own ambition by
constructing not just a building but a cultural center that genuinely
stimulates ideas and scholarship, nourishes conversation, excites benefactors
and new donors, attracts additional revenue and strengthens the college’s
brand on a local, national and international level.

If we define culture as “a sense of mutual responsibility
between centers of power in a society,” then we can see how the college can use
the development of the art museum to achieve greater national visibility in
connecting different institutions and in energizing the community around it.

This edifice should be a multipurpose building that sustains
a nexus of cultural activity. We should think of the new museum as a residence
of distinguished scholars, an academy of the arts and sciences, a portal to the
community around it, an athenaeum, a literary
society, a place of artistic quality that can host the eminent and the wise, a
place of community memory and graciousness, and a gateway, not a border. 

The college does not realize the extent to which this could
benefit the school. But in recognizing the potential of this new edifice, it
must also recognize the complexity surrounding the construction and extension
of its campus. Such a well-endowed college should broaden its thinking—though
it might require more time, planning and money.

In the accompanying info graphic, I have described in
more detail what specific amenities might align with this vision. Is the college ‘daring’ enough to try for it? It could be a wonderful legacy, but it will
depend on collaboration, not a turnkey operation where I donate the funding and
leave the scene. 

The reward system of building a single purpose structure and getting credit for proceeding expeditiously should be replaced by the more demanding task of pulling different interests together to start a cinema café or a literary honor society. Currently, I have pledged eight million dollars for this more broadly set objective but haven’t heard any specific commitments from the college. I invite the college to respond to my critique, including those who have made a contribution to the planning process of this building.

I hope that this proposal is seriously considered. I am
constitutionally an optimist regarding the college, but the process of trying
to accomplish some earlier objectives has given me a healthy appreciation of
the time that it may take to come to agreement. Therefore, we should remember
that my proposed end-goal for this building is to break down barriers between
the community and the Claremont Colleges, solidifying Pomona as a cultural center.

In 1960, during my time at Pomona, I created the survey that became
the first student evaluation of teaching performance. Later in 1962, I
introduced some of the first controversial speakers, which included the heads of the Black
Muslims, the John Birch Society and Fair Play for Cuba. In 1963, I worked with
two other students who later were among the college’s first graduates of
planning schools and we constructed a coffee house in the basement of the old
coop called the Smudge Pot.

Then, I didn’t realize that the Smudge Pot was ‘a place
maker,’ nor did I understand that I would be working through such ideas for most
of my professional lifetime. Smudge Pot lasted about twenty years and brought a lot of talent to the colleges. It became a matter of constructing an energy center on campus. Where pools of beach pebbles, black varnished smudge pots and egg crate walls once stood, the bland and generic Doms Lounge stands today. So much for community character.

It is worth noting that all of these initiatives were, at
first, resisted by the college administration and then eventually accepted. I hope
that the college will proceed with deliberation in the instance of the art
museum, unlike my experience with my endeavors while at school. A transparent planning process might move this idea along faster because, despite the liberal instincts of most administrators, Pomona hasn’t been on the cutting edge of change, has it?

Let us
create, then, a planning process that seeks to construct much more than a dry
museum. Let us find a process that can be ambitious, graceful and flexible to
engender a culture of delight in all aspects of learning and in the exchange of
knowledge. The building indeed should be an elegant backdrop for the free
spirits within it. 

My lead gift could be large enough to stimulate a financial
response from other donors, and culturally responsive enough to stimulate a
broader definition of a college culture. At least that is the concept of this
funding strategy—to create a policy construct that can encourage other ideas
generated by other ‘daring minds’ to flow through this vehicle and add to its
weight as ‘cultural capital’ for college and community. Now is the time to
escape narrow-mindedness and collaborate to open up Pomona’s appeal to a wider
demographic: the rest of the world. 

Ronald Lee Fleming PO ’63, a fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, was also founding chairman of the Cambridge Arts Council which proposed the first one per cent for public art law for a municipality in Massachusetts.           

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