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A Master of Arts

UCI Administrator Stephen Barker's Efforts Focus on Cultural Side of Science-Dominated Campus

January 19, 1999|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What kind of future could you envision for a guy from a small town in Iowa who founded a funky theater as a college undergraduate, became--in fairly rapid succession--an actor, director, dancer and choreographer in Great Britain, got a master's degree in fiction writing and then chucked all this creative activity to burrow into the arcane world of literary theory?

Stephen Barker--still trim and youthfully energetic at 52--is, appropriately enough, a networker extraordinaire on behalf of UC Irvine's arts and humanities programs.

Laden with such titles as "faculty assistant to the chancellor," "professor, department of drama" and "director of the School of the Arts program in interdisciplinary studies," he operates like a gleeful dilettante in the groves of academe.

"It's all been a very strange ride, I must say," Barker remarked from his fifth floor office overlooking the bright orange Mark di Suvero sculpture he brought to campus last year as a first step toward a UCI public art program.

"I've been here for almost a dozen years, and I've been lucky enough to teach and partake in all kinds of wonderful things that wouldn't have been possible except for this strange, eclectic background."

Pragmatism played a major role. Barker left the United States after graduating from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1968 because he was, as he put it, a "card-carrying draft dodger." Acting and teaching acting for a small company in London (Studio '68 of Theatre Arts), he began taking dance classes to develop more control of his body onstage.

"Modern dance was just starting to catch on in Britain, and there were few male bodies to lift all those women," he said.

Six months after starting to classes at the well-regarded London School of Contemporary Dance, he joined its professional company. He toured around the world, 50 weeks a year, until the British Arts Council began paying London arts groups to take their work into the provinces.

Working in a huge high school in Cardiff, Wales, he and seven other performers had a swell time doing multimedia work in the mid-1970s. A few years later, Barker was able to return legally, thanks to President Jimmy Carter's amnesty for draft evaders.

"I was so tired of touring and performing at that point that I actually went back to school to see what I wanted to do," Barker said.

His initial interest was creative writing, but even before he finished his master's of fine arts degree at the University of Arizona, he got "seduced by scholarship again," he said, and began work in the university's PhD program in literary theory.

"I always had an interest in philosophy, and it was just a duck-to-water thing," he said. "I was very lucky in getting a number of early pieces of scholarship published."

Barker's next move was a natural: to UC Irvine, where former Yale University literary theorist J. Hillis Miller had just been hired, along with the Parisian guru of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida.

And then other offers beckoned--administrative posts at UCI--that wound up taking Barker away from his writing. "It's hard to say no," Barker said, And, gesturing toward the Di Suvero--"I have a nice view from here."

Serendipity Steps In Again

The sculpture, a one-year loan from Di Suvero's Santa Monica gallery, was a bit of serendipity, as Barker tells it. Invited to watch the installation of the artist's abstract steel sculptures at Town Center Park in Costa Mesa last summer, Barker found out that they'd be returned to storage at the end of September.

"One of the things I really wanted to do for the first time in the 35-year history of UCI is to upgrade campus awareness of the world of art," Barker said. "[UC] San Diego has a wonderful [public art] policy. UCLA is dotted with stuff. Santa Cruz has stuff all over the campus. We have a beautiful campus which is potentially a first-rate sculpture park, and there's nothing here."

Ralph J. Cicerone, the new, arts-friendly chancellor of this traditionally science-dominated campus, and his vice chancellor, William J. Lillyman, a humanities professor, were both "ready to take action," Barker said. In vivid contrast to the dozens of public art projects that languished and died in committees over the years, the deal was consummated in a record 48 hours.

But "Aesop" will remain on campus for just one year, unless Barker's fledgling Campus Art Alliance can come up with the $500,000 purchase price negotiated with UCI alumni Mark Moore, Di Suvero's West Coast art dealer.

The alliance, whose full, 12-member roster will be announced in the next few weeks, will have representatives from the arts and science faculties (including professor James Fallon, at the School of Medicine), artists and art dealers (professor emeritus Tony deLap and Moore), as well as local residents. The group will recommend potential purchases for campus sites and help raise money to create an art endowment. (So far, no dollar goal has been set.)

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