Ryken Kicks Off Year of the Arts

By Mollie Waldrop Opening of new concert hall the first in a series of events to celebrate faith and beauty on campus.

People gathering in the Armerding Lobby decorated for the celebration. Photo: Amber Smith.

The Wheaton College President’s Office announced the 2021-2022 academic year as the “Year of the Arts, Faith, and Learning” on Sep. 2. In an interview with President Philip Ryken, he described two goals the College is hoping to achieve with this year’s emphasis on the arts.


“The purpose of the year is to glorify God and to celebrate the good work our faculty and students are doing in all varieties of the arts,” said Ryken.


This year-long celebration kicked off with the grand opening of the Armerding Center for Music and the Arts on Sept. 25 and will continue to celebrate the arts throughout the year in special performances, concerts, projects, exhibits and collaborations. 


According to the Sept. 2 email sent to all students, staff, and faculty, the events are meant to celebrate “how God has blessed Wheaton College through the arts in conjunction with the grand opening of the completed Armerding Center for Music and the Arts.”

The Armerding Grand Opening Celebration was only the first of many events planned for the year. While not all have been announced, the Year of the Arts website indicates that there will be a concert by Voces8, a British choral and a cappella ensemble performances of the play “My Name is Asher Lev” by Wheaton College Arena Theatre, Christmas Festival concerts, orchestral and choir concerts, poetry-themed events during the “poetry month” in April and a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert next semester. A traveling gallery of The Saint John’s Bible, a hand-written and illuminated Bible created in 1998 that was commissioned by Saint John’s Abbey and University, will be a special exhibition on campus this year.


The Year of the Arts announcement and the events scheduled for this academic year involve manyWheaton students in the Conservatory, the orchestra and band, Arena Theatre and various choirs. Junior studio art major and theater student Lydia Ritchie expressed her enthusiasm for the year’s events.


“I am really excited for the Year of the Arts because it is nice to have the space set aside to focus on the arts since they’re not as emphasized in institutions of higher education,” said Ritchie.

Dr. Wilder, Dean of the Conservatory of Music, provides the ceremony’s opening remarks. Photo: Amber Smith.

Ritchie said that she hopes the outside community, and particularly students at other colleges,will see Wheaton’s emphasis on the arts this year and recognize the importance of art in their daily lives.


“Art is important in our spiritual lives, our social lives, and our emotional lives,” said Ritchie. “It’s good to focus on how life-giving the arts can be, and hopefully other colleges and the community can see that.”


The Year of the Arts coincides with the opening of the Amerding Concert Hall in the Conservatory, which will host numerous chorale, orchestral and band recitals throughout the year. But Senior Music Performance major Jonah Brabant also emphasized that the year should celebrate the contributions of artistic groups outside of the Conservatory as well.

Public audience members view a performance for the first time in the concert hall. Photo: Amber Smith.



“This new building is fantastic and I think that we should celebrate it,” said Brabant. “But I would love to see the other arts organizations on campus also thrive and really not feel like they’re the forgotten younger sibling to the Conservatory. Zoe’s Feet is just as important, the art department is just as important and the theater department is just as important. They all have something important and necessary to contribute.”

The first major Year of the Arts event occurred on Sept. 25, when Wheaton held a Grand Celebration Concert for the opening of the Armerding Center for Music and the Arts. The event was originally scheduled for the fall of 2020, when the Center first opened, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The festivities included an open house after the matinee concert and a grand reveal of the sculpture which now stands in the Armerding Concert Hall Lobby. 


The Armerding Center, which includes a 648-seat, acoustically-engineered concert hall, was constructed over the course of two building phases. The first phase began in January 2017 and ended in October 2017, and included the complete renovation and conversion of the former Armerding Science Hall into the Armerding Center for Music and the Arts. The second phase included the construction of the new concert hall and was finally completed in the fall of 2020 for the cost of approximately $32.1 million. The center is named after Hudson Armerding, who was president of the college from 1965-1982.


Between the two Grand Celebration concerts at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., a short unveiling ceremony for the new “Trumpet in the Universe” sculpture in the Armerding Concert Hall Lobby took place. Designed by Romanian sculptor Liviu Mocan, the 17.5-foot sculpture is made of 15 brass rods that flare as they rise upward, evoking a horn.

The process of getting “Trumpet in the Universe” to Armerding Lobby involved several steps: the sculpture was shipped overseas from Cambridge, England in a three-week voyage, transferred to a train in Canada and then placed in a semi-truck and driven to Chicago. The sculpture sustained minor damages from its time in transit, so the College hired a firm in Chicago that specializes in large-scale art installation to repair the piece and then install it into the Lobby floor using four 20-inch stainless-steel bolts. The purchase of the sculpture was funded through contributions by Wheaton’s donors.

The Armerding Concert Hall stage filled with performers. Photo: Amber Smith.

At the dedication event, Mocan said he hoped the sculpture would cause people to praise “the Great Sculptor” and “honor through their work the King of the universe.”


In his speech at the Grand Celebration, Ryken, who wrote a book about Christianity and the arts in 2006 called “Art for God’s Sake,” also emphasized worship. The goal of the arts at Wheaton, he said,  is to “bring the beauty of our God, the God who brings beauty out of ashes, to life.”


Ryken’s 10-chapel series this year explores beauty from a biblical perspective. In a Sept. 24 chapel message on Isaiah 33:2-22 called “The King in his Beauty,” Ryken said that Gen-Z has at the heart of its spiritual struggles a specific question: “What is beautiful?” Ryken said that while this generation is driven by the search for beauty, students’ hunger for beauty will only ever be satisfied in God. 


“Without God, one will not experience the beauty of God’s creation in a way that leads to praise,” he said.


Communication and theater professor Michael Stauffer, who is currently directing the Arena Theatre fall play entitled “My Name is Asher Lev,” said that he appreciated the opening ceremony and completion of the new building, but voiced concern that the event, and the forms of art it celebrated, come have come across as elitist. 


“I really appreciated what the Conservatory was doing to highlight the conservatory program and their impressive new facility,” said Stauffer. “At the same time, I was also experiencing a kind of hiccup because that is just one view of the arts. And if we are going to celebrate the arts on campus for a full year, it’s not just about the kind of elitist activity that we experienced on Saturday night at the Grand Celebration. I really believe that the arts are for everyone. A celebration of the arts should be more inclusive. It is not just about concerts and galleries. I believe that the arts need to be ordinary rather than elitist.”


Stauffer said he hopes the Year of the Arts will generate good and occasionally uncomfortable conversations about faith and beauty.

The steps outside the Armerding Concert Hall. Photo: Amber Smith.

I think this celebration should give us an opportunity to discuss what is meant by the term beauty. That could get messy—that is what art is about. It is often messy—not neat, pretty, and appropriate,” said Stauffer. “Honest art can be beautiful if it can transport us to a realization of truth. If we are going to be honest about what this is as a celebration of the arts, we are going to talk about the black, the white, and that huge gray area in between.” 


The next major Year of the Arts event will be the Homecoming Choral Showcase Concert on Oct. 8 at 7:30 p.m., featuring the Concert Choir, Men’s Glee Club, and Women’s Chorale in the Armerding Concert Hall.



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