Incubating Art

By Cherie Winner
November 06, 2015

Penn State has a new incubator. It’s not for business start-ups or tech transfer ventures. It’s for artists.

The Arts and Design Research Incubator, or ADRI, was established in 2014 to support projects within the College of Arts and Architecture, with an eye toward launching them onto a bigger stage.

“The idea is to embed projects for about two years and get them into the river of larger funding,” says Andy Belser, professor of theatre and director of ADRI. “We’re not the place to have projects that just sit down within Penn State and stay here. This is really looking out into the world. Getting pieces out is the idea.”

The first four embedded projects, now wrapping up, have already produced several installation works and public presentations and a play that has been performed (to very good reviews) in New York.

The ADRI provided space in which to work, promotion for performances and exhibitions, and modest funding for equipment and travel.

“Seed money is a huge problem in the arts,” says Belser. A grant of $10,000, which would barely get a science project off the ground, can make all the difference in the world to a project in the arts. “We’re a step along the way,” he says. “A really important step.”

Hatching a plan
The incubator grew out of discussions between Belser and Andrew Schulz, associate dean for research in the College of Arts and Architecture, who both arrived at Penn State in the fall of 2013 eager to find new ways to encourage research in the college. They looked closely at interdisciplinary labs at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT that bring artists together with thinkers and creators in a wide range of other fields.

"We consider ALL the creative inquiry we do to be part of the research enterprise."


They made a deliberate decision to call the program here an incubator, says Belser. “We want this notion of, ‘here’s a project in its infancy, and here’s what we do to encourage its growth.’ The idea is that eventually, Penn State gets known for being a place where really creative interdisciplinary work is happening.”

They also wanted the ADRI to challenge conventional views of what constitutes “research.”

“We consider all the creative inquiry we do to be part of the research enterprise,” says Schulz. “In my view, ‘research’ is fundamentally about the creation of new knowledge. Whether that means analyzing DNA in a laboratory or interpreting a 300-year-old cello concerto, you’re creating new knowledge. It’s a new way of understanding and thinking about the world.”

The incubator strongly encourages projects that involve both art and science—but not in the way those two realms are usually combined.

“Often when artists or designers or musicians are drawn into interdisciplinary projects, it’s at the end of a science project,” says Schulz. “Scientists come to artists and say, ‘You can help us disseminate this work or translate it for the general public.’ The proposition we are testing is: What does it mean to bring artists and designers in at a much earlier stage, or even have them drive the process?”

Crossing boundaries
That approach is apparent in the program’s first four embedded projects, which include combinations such as music with ecology, and theater with neuroscience [see photos].

Traditionally, the various forms of inquiry have been handled in separate disciplines, with little interaction among them.

“We tend to put them in boxes,” says Schulz. “You have ‘research,’ and that means the scientific enterprise. You have ‘scholarship,’ and that’s history or what somebody does in a library or archive. There’s ‘creative inquiry,’ which is the arts, and then there’s ‘innovation,’ which usually means tech-transfer and bringing ideas to market.

“But I think it’s more interesting if you get away from those boxes, because that’s when the artist and the scientist realize that there’s enough overlap to start to talk about what common questions they have. That’s when the conversations can begin.”


The ADRI was launched with financial support from the College of Arts and Architecture. The second round of ADRI applications will be announced soon, with funding to begin in January 2016. To learn more about the program and its upcoming events, contact Andy Belser at or visit the ADRI website.

This story first appeared in the October 2015 issue of Research|Penn State magazine.


  • close-up of a Face.Age participant's face

    Professor of theatre Andy Belser created Face.Age, a multimedia installation featuring filmed encounters in which young (18-22) and older (70+) people examined and touched each other's faces. A loop of moving and still images allows a closer study of faces than is afforded in social settings.

    IMAGE: Andrew Belser
  • Mark Ballora Project Image

    Mark Ballora, associate professor of music technology, collaborates with scientists to convert complex data into sounds, to reveal patterns that otherwise would be hard to detect. Among others, he worked with ecologist Michael Sheriff to "score" the body temperature and hibernation patterns of Arctic ground squirrels.

    IMAGE: Stephanie Swindle
  • shadows on cobblestones

    Kimberly Powell, associate professor of education and arts education, works with GPS tracking, video, and walking interviews with residents of the Japantown neighborhood in San Jose, California, to explore place-based narratives and how walking itself produces memories, civic identity, and stories.

    IMAGE: © Thinkstock-slav
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Last Updated July 28, 2017