The quad of Duke University on a sunny day.

Image: Flickr | Duke University

Art is a pathway to understanding. Its diverse mediums provide a variety of vessels for the exploration of personal history and universal experience. Artists may make their work without the support of private institutions. But what happens to the work, whether a particular or specific experience gets to see the light of day, is often determined by the artist’s access to a supportive environment. That’s why arts-positive institutions like Duke University and donors like David Rubenstein are so important. He recently donated $25 million to support the arts at the University.

Rubenstein has become well known as a patriotic philanthropist. He has signed Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge and is determined to distribute his entire $3.1 billion estate before he dies.

Duke University is the alma mater of other successful leaders in the financial community, men like David Topper, Operating Partner at General Atlantic. He graduated from Duke and serves on the Board of Directors of Duke University Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

Duke said in a statement that Rubenstein’s gift “will help create and sustain programs, activities, and performances across the range of performing and visual arts at Duke.” The school will be building a new arts center that will include a dance studio, classrooms, a movie theater, and a performance theater.

Financial support to the institution allows creative artists enrolled at Duke the chance to pursue their vital and important work. Jon-Sesrie Goff is a student in the MFA Experimental and Documentary Arts program at Duke. He is currently working on a short film called “After Sherman.” He is exploring his family history through the study of a 40-acre plot that has passed down through generations.

The recent shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina provided a new focus for Goff’s work–his father became interim pastor at the church after the shooting.

Goff chose to study at Duke because of their resources and innovative approach to the study and practice of art making. His program supervisors embraced and supported the new direction in his work. “This institution really supports arts in a non-traditional way, and they recognize that an art student might be interested in other disciplines,” Goff said. “That’s really what stood out to me as I was considering different programs.”

Duke also innovates our understanding of the African American experience through programming at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art” questions the constructed idea of the American South. The region has had a deep influence on the development of American culture, which can be seen in our literature, food, and music. This exhibition takes a critical look at the mythology and public perception of Southern identity through the lens of contemporary art.