By Alyssa Foster
Current ARAD Student, Arts & Humanities Writer
Dr. Jennifer Lena: Scholarly Muse
At the start of the Fall semester, Teachers College proudly welcomed Dr. Jennifer Lena as Associate Professor of Arts Administration. After receiving both her Masters and Ph.D. of Sociology at Columbia University, Dr. Lena ventured beyond New York for myriad academic pursuits around the country. Currently an active researcher and participant in many remarkable arts projects, Dr. Lena says she was beckoned back to Teachers College by “the prestige and wide spectrum of learning opportunities that an Ivy League school located in a world-renowned city offers.” Impressed by the wealth of knowledge and the boundless possibilities she encountered herself as a sociology student, Dr. Lena is enthusiastic that returning as a professor will allow her to positively influence the next generation of arts leaders.
The arts have always been intertwined with Dr. Lena’s academic interests since childhood. Growing up she was influenced by her uncle Benny Andrews, one of the African American artists and leaders in the Black Arts Cultural Coalition, and his efforts towards the inclusion of black curators in shows at the MET and the Whitney. Further influenced by the work of her sociologist father, Dr. Lena quickly became interested in studying the privileges that racial status can either provide or withhold. The inspiration for her research was later shaped by the mentorship of scholars she worked with as a graduate student, such as Peter Bearman and Harrison White.
As recent as 2010, Dr. Lena worked in collaboration with College of Charleston Professor Jonathan Neufeld to become the first sociologist to have commissioned a Grammy-nominated album. A collection of ensemble pieces by composer Gabriela Lena Frank, the album titled “Hilos” was the product of a $50,000 research grant made available to Vanderbilt faculty. At the time Dr. Lena applied for the grant, her co-commissioner, philosopher of aesthetics Professor Neufeld, had been reviewing the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and the ALIAS Chamber Orchestra. ALIAS, an admirable chamber group of volunteer musicians donating their revenue to charities, was currently working with Frank to prepare music that would later be part of “Hilos.” Receipt of the grant provided Dr. Lena and Professor Neufeld the opportunity to finance Frank’s CD, as well as to benefit the charitable work of ALIAS. The Schubert Club soon decided to co-sponsor the album and Naxos Records was then involved to handle the formal recording process. Dr. Lena’s role in the MAC project is a quintessential example of how financial and academic support can benefit the artistic ventures of others.
While an arts patron, active researcher, academic advisor, and sociologist, Dr. Lena is also a prolific author. Her new book, Banding Together, was published in 2012 and examines in-depth how musical styles gain popularity along with the creative collaboration which permits it. As stated on her book jacket, Dr. Lena finds commonalities amongst 60 styles of American popular music to provide “a rare analysis of how music communities operate.” While conducting her research, primary and secondary sources were referenced to investigate the international music scenes of China, Nigeria, Serbia and Chile, in order to juxtapose their genres with those of the United States. Ultimately, Dr. Lena investigates the concept of what constitutes a genre from a sociological lens, positing that her definition is applicable not just to music but to the most inclusive spectrum of arts: from social movements to academia.
Dr. Lena is devoted to enriching the learning process through her dedication to her students and to her continuous socio-artistic research. Her passion is already felt and cherished as an invaluable presence within the Arts Administration department.