Institutions of higher learning are oft-criticized for focusing too much on keeping alive the intellectual and legacies of dead white males. Since 2003, America’s oldest degree-granting educational institution for women, Vassar College, has been fighting that label with an annual festival dedicated to exploring and celebrating the arts of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s called Modfest, and it brings together students, faculty members and outside artists (such as Pulitzer Prizewinning composers Yehudi Wyner, Steve Reich and David del Tredici) for a week-and-a-half of residencies, performances and exhibitions, all free and open to the general public.
This year’s Modfest – the 15th annual – honors the retirements of its co-founders, Adene and Richard Wilson, with a special concert of contemporary compositions by Vassar faculty members at the Skinner Hall of Music, on Saturday, January 28 at 8 p.m. But the uncontested headliner for the festival will be “An Afternoon with Audra McDonald,” wrapping things up on Sunday, February 5 at 3 p.m. at Skinner Hall. Online reservations are required to attend this performance by, and conversation with, the celebrated soprano and social activist. Known primarily for her triumphant portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, McDonald has won six Tony Awards, two Grammys and an Emmy, and received the National Medal of Arts this past September. Vassar Department of Film professor Mia Mask will interview the Broadway star onstage following her recital.
“Raising Voices” is the theme of Modfest 2017, and anyone who was energized by the politicized acceptance speech delivered by Vassar alumna Meryl Streep at last week’s Golden Globes Awards may want to check out the programs focusing on that theme. Two exhibitions, “Engage! The Artist’s Voice” and “The World after January 20, 2017,” will anchor the series. “These exhibitions reflect the perspectives of faculty, students, and staff across campus in response to recent events,” says Tom Pacio, Modfest co-director and interdisciplinary arts coordinator.
Running at the Old Bookstore in the College Center from January 26 to February 5, “Engage! The Artist’s Voice” is an exhibit of historical and contemporary printed works of protest, vision and social engagement by artists for the greater good. It features works from 1945 to the present, highlighting such national and global issues as World War II, the Civil Rights movement, environmental sustainability and economic equality. “The World after January 20, 2017: Works by Contemporary Artists and Poets” opens at the College Center’s Palmer Gallery with a 5 p.m. reception on Thursday, February 2 and will remain on view beyond the official end of Modfest, until February 16. It will feature poetry, political cartoons, documentary photography, drawings and paintings by Gerardo Castro, Monica D. Church, Michaela Coplen, Judith Nichols, Peter Steiner, Virginia Lavado, Sam Vernon and others that address, reflect and comment on what the first 100 days of the Trump presidency might mean.
Another Modfest highlight will be “Connecting Voices,” a talk by artist Ann Daly about her ongoing collaboration with Spanish musician Álvaro Marcos, a stalwart of the post-Franco Madrid punk scene. Justin Patch and Katherine Hite, professors of Music and Political Science, respectively, at Vassar, will moderate the discussion, beginning at 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 2 in the College Center’s Old Bookstore. Additional events will include an Opening Night concert on January 26; “Raising Healing Voices,” a presentation on music therapy on the 27th; a recital by the Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre on February 3; and a Cabaret Night on February 4, among others.
For the full lineup, including venues and start times, or to reserve a seat for the Audra McDonald event, visit www.vassar.edu. The Vassar College campus is located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie.