The Arts at NYU Shanghai: A Success | Story of Unprecedented Growth

When NYU Shanghai was founded in 2012 it started by only offering one class in the visual arts and none in musical arts, but exceptional student interest in ensuing years has seen the eighth floor become a hub for artistic minds.

According to NYU’s Albert Course list, students in the Spring 2021 semester were offered the choice of 17 types of arts classes (including dance) and 28 types of music classes. Despite a lack of a major or minor program, participation continues to increase in these elective courses.

When the music program was first developed in 2015 by Professor Diana Heldman, only group and individual vocal courses were taught.

“There were clubs, but that was the most that music was,” she said. “There were some courses that sort of touched on music, but there weren’t any music courses per se.”

However, 52 students joined when Professor Heldman created the first chorale in Spring 2016. They came from both her previous semester and students interested in the new course. According to Heldman “the chorale really took off, not just because it gave people the opportunity to sing, but because it was a community.”

The community has only continued to expand over time. In five years, the program has grown to an unprecedented size of 110 students. In contrast, the chorale in New York consists of a selection of 40 unique singers.

While the school’s two a cappella ensembles created by Professor Anne Girven require auditions, the main ensemble is open to both new and experienced students, a criteria dating back to the start of the music program[DM1] .

“I did not want to create a music program, I wanted to create a program that supported the community through music,” Heldman said.

This support for both students and teachers has transformed into an environment that is safe for both personal expression and release.

“I grew up in an environment where players were constantly being yelled at,” Orchestra Professor Yue Cheng said. “I don’t want to recreate that. I hate that because students will hate that.”

This teacher’s personal goal has seemed to work remarkably well since Orchestra started in Fall 2017. The first orchestra had only seven members while this semester it includes 43 musicians. In addition to three members of faculty, the orchestra now boasts musicians of many skill levels and cultures, all playing in one auditorium.

“I remember when I was a freshman, I was not quite used to playing the saxophone with others in the Chamber Orchestra,” admitted sophomore Yuting Wang. “Professor Cheng Yue was super nice and patient. Sometimes he had a one-on-one tutoring session with me and taught me a lot about how to find the proper rhythm and play the pieces.”

As a safe place to explore their interests, students have also used their experience in the arts as a new way to engage the world around them.

According to dance professor Tao Siye, “The only way to learn to dance is to act, to do. Every movement has its intentions. After dance class, they realize not to always be 马马虎虎 (so-so).’’

With the positive impact the arts has had on students, a natural demand has emerged for introductory classes. However, not all students wish to participate as beginners in their craft in showcases.

So Monika Lin, the department head for Visual and Preforming Arts, has been working with professors to introduce suitable classes that have further stimulated growth in the program.

“We added an intro to dance level that doesn’t perform,” she said.

“That was for students who might not think they want to perform, to build confidence and realize that maybe they do, and then enter another class. The same thing is happening across all of the arts. “

With the upcoming new campus offering greater space for the arts, the hope is that the program will continue to expand.

The new campus is set to include 17 practice rooms, five rehearsal spaces, an art gallery, a recital hall, a black box, two dance studios, a piano lab, a theatre shop, and a music studio for instrumental rehearsal, according to Hannah Maia Frishberg, a senior associate in NYUSH’s communications department.

These additions mean more space will be given to production and display of every aspect of the arts, opening it up to the greater Shanghai community, and encouraging more students to participate.

As the arts department continues to grow, something that is also mentioned by faculty is a wish to be more collaborative with departments outside of the arts.

“I think all the disciplines, including IMA, could come together and do something really powerful, something really impressive,” said Professor Girvin.

As planning for the new campus continues, development of a major, or additional minors, within the visual and preforming arts is in the preliminary discussion phase.

“It’s hard to say what the solid plans are because they are still emerging, it’s more a discovery of what we need” said Professor Monika Lin

 “We need to hire this professor or we need to hire that professor, which classes need to be offered in order to make a rounded program.”

As of now, the department is still developing a complete program before it can consider applying for a minor or major. So all students currently taking these classes, with the exception of dance, are doing so without the intention of using them for anything but elective credit.

“I’ve been most surprised by the dedication of students who aren’t necessarily coming from an art background nor intend to use art further in their life, who are maybe just curious,” Professor Lin said.

 “And then I have experienced students, particularly Go Local, who are majoring in art. Those students are together in one class. It is both invigorating, this sort of cross pollination that is possible, and at the same time challenging to teach to such a diverse number of levels of experience.”

This article was written by Luna Lopez currently based in Shanghai, China. Please send an email to to get in touch.

Photo Credit: Gabriel Song

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