Cultural Experiences that Connect

Baylor’s campus is a hub for cultural arts that bring together and inspire the Baylor Family and beyond

A university serves many functions. Chief among them, of course, is the higher education of young people as a stepping stone into adulthood. And then there are a multitude of secondary functions that serve to support that education — research, personal development and growth, and contributions to the betterment of society.

Kevin Villegas, Ed.D., is assistant dean of intercultural engagement in Baylor’s Division of Student Life. His role focuses on leading a comprehensive approach to a more vibrant, diverse and supportive campus experience as an expression of the Baylor University mission.

“When we think of the purpose of a university, a big part of it is about curating thoughtful and intentional opportunities and experiences for students to engage with difference in healthy and vibrant ways. Whether it’s through language, history, science or the visual and performing arts — you name it — a deep engagement with all facets of the human experience is essential toward creating life-long lovers of learning who will positively contribute to our world,” Villegas said.

To that end, Baylor’s community-facing cultural institutions are dedicated to igniting curiosity, connection and conversation. Whether it’s the authentic 1890s historic village at the Mayborn Museum Complex, a screen-printed poster exhibition in the Martin Museum of Art or a concert by the Juilliard String Quartet hosted by the School of Music, meaningful cultural experiences exist around every corner of Baylor’s campus for the edification and enlightenment of all who enjoy them — students, faculty, staff, alumni, visitors and the entire Waco community.

The leaders of these high-caliber institutions do not see them as an end, but rather the beginning of continued learning and dialogue in the community. Overall, their ethos is simple: to connect.

Mayborn Museum Complex
The Mayborn Museum Complex has interactive exhibits that connect patrons of all ages

Mayborn Museum Complex

It is no simple feat for a community space to cater to young children, college students and older adults alike, but that is what the Mayborn Museum Complex has done since it opened in 2004 — bringing together several existing institutions — and it continues to evolve and grow.

Half of the children’s wing was renovated over the past five years, and over the next decade, there are plans for a $16 million renovation of the natural history wing. As part of these advancements, a set of bronze mammoth statues — modeled after the mammoth fossils discovered in Waco in 1978 — will be installed in front of the complex in the coming year.

Charlie Walter, Ph.D., director of the Mayborn, believes it is rare for a community to have access to a museum of the Mayborn’s quality. The Mayborn boasts accolades that set it among the highest caliber museums in the country. In 2019, it was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums — only 4 percent of museums in the country receive this accreditation.

Additionally, the Mayborn was recently named a Smithsonian Affiliate, which means access to a plethora of new resources, including impressive speakers and summer workshops for staff. The Mayborn also will soon launch the Earth Optimism Youth Action and Leadership Program through the Smithsonian, partnering with local high schools to empower students’ environmental advocacy.

The Jeanes Discovery Cente
The Jeanes Discovery Center offers exhibits that promote play and learning

As one of 13 affiliates in Texas and the only one in Central Texas, the Mayborn has the chance to provide the Smithsonian with a snapshot of life in Waco. Aaron Glavas, national outreach manager for the Smithsonian, visited in April and was struck by the shared missions of the institutions.

“Discovery and learning are at the core of both of our missions, and this was evident in my conversations and during my visit,” Glavas said.

The quality of the Mayborn also is evidenced by the high number of visitors annually. An average of 165,000 people visit the museum each year — approximately two-thirds from McLennan County.

The Mayborn strives to make entry affordable for everyone in the community. Discounted “Museum for All” memberships are offered to families on government assistance, and there are membership passes available for checkout from local libraries.

Its connection to Baylor is what allows the museum to keep admission costs low, and, on the flip side, Baylor’s connection to the Mayborn is deeply valuable for researchers at the University. The “Portal to the Public” program helps researchers connect to the community, and initiatives like “Sic ’Em Science Day” and the “Lifelong Learning” program foster relationships between Baylor and the public.

Further, the museum acts as a touchpoint for families to learn about Baylor. A permanent exhibit in the museum highlights Baylor’s traditions, Christian mission, innovation, arts, athletics and founding.

In the Natural and Cultural History Exhibits at the Mayborn, visitors experience the rich history of Central Texas. The path through this wing takes guests past specimens that date back hundreds of years, dioramas of wildlife and replicas of the homes of people groups that have called Central Texas home.

With future renovation plans for this wing, Walter hopes to better tell stories of a diverse group of people by incorporating the voices of real people — such as members of the Wichita Tribe — into the exhibit.

“We want people here to really expand their ideas about what Waco has been like and what it could be,” Walter said.

In the Jeanes Discovery Center, kids can explore miniaturized versions of Waco favorites in Play Waco, including H-E-B, the Brazos River and the Waco Hippodrome. Elsewhere in the Discovery Center, children can dive into various hands-on experiences that highlight topics spanning from backyard ecology to SpaceX.

Travelling exhibits also find a temporary home at the Mayborn, so there is always something new to explore. For instance, the summer exhibit, “Scooby-Doo Mansion Mayhem,” — open through Aug. 20 —immerses families in mystery solving with the beloved cartoon crew.

The Mayborn skillfully balances between looking back and looking forward, preserving history while also finding new stories to tell. By providing visitors with access to first-hand learning experiences, Walter believes the museum is especially impactful.

“You’re in front of the fossil, the artifact, the teepee — you’re hearing a real story. That’s just hard to find,” Walter said.

Because any visit to the museum is confined to a few hours at best, Walter hopes to spark “curiosity, learning, joyful play and community conversations” that go beyond the walls of the Mayborn.

Martin Museum of Art
Located in the Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center, the Martin Museum of Art host multiple exhibitions each year

Martin Museum of Art

Part of art’s power lies in its ability to engender different responses in different people. As Mike Schuetz, M.F.A., collections manager at the Martin Museum of Art, points out, you cannot predict the experience any person will have when looking at a piece of art. Thus, the staff at the Martin believe that the purpose of the museum, at its core, is to initiate dialogue.

“Our job is to provide a catalyst for conversations with people,” Allison Chew, M.F.A., director of the Martin, said.

“Our job is to provide a catalyst for conversations with people.”
Allison Chew, M.F.A

Located in the Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center, the Martin consists of three gallery spaces and typically hosts six to eight exhibitions per year. All programming, events and exhibitions are open to the public, with no admission fee.

The Martin also hosts K-12 field trips, which are free for schools. As one of the only active collecting art institutions between Dallas and Austin, the Martin provides valuable access to art for people throughout Central Texas.

Kelvin and Jessica, B.A. ’11, Beachum and their children
Kelvin and Jessica, B.A. ’11, Beachum and their children

The current exhibition at the Martin, “Narrative as Reality: Constructing an Identity,” features art from the personal collection of Kelvin and Jessica Beachum. Jessica, B.A. ’11, is a Baylor graduate who now lives in Arizona with her husband Kelvin — an offensive tackle for the Arizona Cardinals — and their three children.

Beachum has been interested in art since she was a child, and the couple began collecting art early in their marriage, purchasing their first piece together while on their honeymoon in 2013. Their interest in art really took off in 2016 when they moved to New Jersey; the proximity to New York City transformed date nights into trips to look at art in the city.

As their collection has grown, the couple finds it increasingly important to share their art. Anything that isn’t loaned out to a museum or gallery is hanging on the walls of their home for their kids to see.

 The exhibition at the Martin includes 21 works by 19 different artists, and it will run until Nov. 5. Ranging from an eye-catching stained-glass work to a magnificent 10-by-15-foot mixed media canvas piece, the artworks are united by a theme of Black identity, lived experiences, power and process.

Echoing Chew’s desire to spark conversation and connection, Beachum hopes this exhibit in particular will ignite dialogue about identity and inspire an interest in art for Baylor and Waco community members and beyond.

“Art can be interpreted in many different ways,” Beachum said. “I can see this piece and think one thing, and you can see it and think another, but it’s nice to have those conversations and to share our thoughts.”

 Chew hopes that the Beachum exhibit leaves people with a new perspective. With any exhibition, Chew wants to make people think and get out of their comfort zone. As she tells visitors on tours: “You don’t have to like it. You just have to consider it.”

The School of Music hosts more than 300 musical performances each year
The School of Music hosts more than 300 musical performances each year

School of Music

On any given night, there is likely a musical performance on Baylor’s campus — altogether, the School of Music gives more than 300 recitals and performances a year, and at least 280 of those are free of charge and open to the public. Whether it is a student recital, choir concert, opera, orchestra performance or a concert by a visiting artist, the Baylor Family and Waco community are fortunate to have vast access to live musical experiences.

Baylor consistently brings in excellent performers from around the world, ranging from acapella groups to cellists. Gary Mortenson, D.M.A., dean of the School of Music, says they strive for variety when choosing artists to invite.

Mortenson just completed his eighth year at Baylor and is planning a year-long sabbatical following his ninth year, followed by retirement. He says he’s enjoyed every moment at Baylor.

One of Mortenson’s most notable contributions to the program is the Semper Pro Musica Competition, in which students contend for the chance to perform at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

“Their lives are pretty much changed when they walk on that stage and perform,” Mortenson said.

Mortenson believes in the power of live music to also change the lives of audience members, which motivates a dedication to bringing performances to the Waco community.

“What I love about music is there are things that can be done through musical experiences that transcend the limitations of the spoken or written word,” Mortenson said. “I think music is one of the last best hopes for us to live into a better world and create a better world.”

In particular, some initiatives at Baylor focus on exposing children to live performance. For instance, each year in Waco Hall, the Baylor Symphony Orchestra and Waco Symphony Orchestra put on concerts for about 5,000 fourth graders from across Central Texas. This tradition dates back generations.

Another example is the Baylor Opera Theater Outreach Program, which travels child-friendly opera shows — performed by Baylor opera students — to community spaces like schools and the Mayborn Museum. The program has been around for two years, and there are plans for continued growth.

“Cultural experiences are kind of the fabric that tie us together.”
Jen Stephenson, D.M.A.

In the first year, they performed a rendition of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and last year, they did a version of “The Three Little Pigs.” Director of Baylor Opera Theater Jen Stephenson, D.M.A., who helped start the program alongside colleague Jamie Van Eyck, D.M.A., hopes that these performances will give children a positive view of opera and classical music.

Alan Hollinger, a student who performed in “Wolfgang Big Bad the Big Bad Wolf” last year and “Papa Bear” the year prior, believes live performances, especially outreach opera, are important because they bring people together.

“Live performances are crucial for a community,” Hollinger said. “It is a chance for the community to come together and engage in a shared experience.”

Hollinger and Stephenson both attest to the children’s engagement during these performances, citing instances of spontaneous laughter and audience interactions with performers. Smiles shared between performers and audience members testify to the impact of the experience.

“I really think cultural experiences are kind of the fabric that tie us together,” Stephenson said. “Without any shared kind of background or cultural experience, I think we drift apart, and we start to be scared of others. I think shared cultural experiences bring us together.”

Villegas agrees, “These meaningful connections happening at Baylor and our shared city of Waco create opportunities to deepen a sense of community and expand our educational mission. By providing or supporting these cultural experiences, we demonstrate genuine presence and care for our community, living out our Christian commitment to love our neighbors.”