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Board the Amtrak train from platform 5 in New York’s Penn Station. Two hours later alight in a land of rolling hills, apple orchards and Vanderbilt mansions next to the Hudson River. But a rural backwater this is not. Annie Leibovitz and Andre Balazs live a few miles from the train station. Sonny Rollins has a house nearby, as does David Rockefeller. And here, Bard College has created an oasis for artists and the performing arts. Think Harvard crossed with Juilliard, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Edinburgh Fringe – all together on one campus in the middle of the countryside.

Tambra Dillon, director of the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard, calls the college “Hogwarts” – “You get on the train and you land in this magical place at this magical school.”

Bard is a liberal arts college which provides more than a merely vocational education. “We are committed to nurturing non-commercial arts in a world where commercialism reigns,” says Michele Dominy, dean of the college. In this way Bard has become an incubator for artists. Each year it receives 5,000 applications for 500 slots, and there are 1,600 students in all. The faculty-to-student ratio is one to nine and each student gets an advisor. Recent graduates include the artist Lisa Yuskavitch, the actor Jeremy Piven and a student of medieval literature who just started a project to revitalise New Orleans after Katrina.

The academic year starts in August for freshmen, who must take a month-long “Language and Thinking” seminar that involves reading and discussing lightweight topics such as social Darwinism, biodiversity and the laws of thermodynamics. The workload is intense and academically rigorous.

After the second year every student has to “moderate”, that is, prepare a focused presentation for their advisors explaining what they’ve learnt in the first two years and where they will focus their next two. A degree from Bard culminates in a senior project on any academic topic that “thrills” the students.

There is little public funding for the arts in America, and the cost for four years on campus including food and tuition is just under $180,000 (€135,000). But Bard is one of the few colleges where you can major in poetry or human rights, and the sheer range of subjects and activities available here is mind-boggling. On any given day, students and faculty might receive emails inviting them to hear Mia Farrow speak about Darfur, come to a screening by the visual artist Tony Oursler, have a chat with the performance artist Patty Chang or attend a free concert by the Grammy award-winning composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Bard has resisted the creation of an academic faculty. “In my teaching, I try to encourage students to know that study is not divorced from the context of life,” says Leon Botstein, president of the college and a renowned symphony conductor. “The people who are teaching are also doing.” So instead of being taught by a bunch of crusty academics, Bard students have been able to take classes with Roy Lichtenstein, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth and Ian Buruma. Members of the faculty have, between them, three Guggenheim prizes and eight MacArthur “genius” awards.

It’s one reason why artists, musicians and dancers choose Bard over other fine arts schools. Stephen Shore, director of photography at Bard (and a man who sold photographs to MoMA at the age of 14, and exhibited at the Met at 23), has a reputation for running the toughest photography course in the country. “Part of being a good photographer or artist is a need for perception,” he says. “So, taking a literature or anthropology class helps us mature faster as artists.”

Leon Botstein takes meetings in the library of his on-campus house in a signature bow tie, and often with his cat Vinnie on his lap. Refreshingly politically incorrect, he is not afraid to ask your age, sexual orientation or marital status on first meeting. He has one heck of a CV: in addition to being music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, he serves on the George Soros Open Institute Board, is editor of Musical Quarterly, founder and co-artistic director of Bard Music festival, plays piano and violin, teaches a freshman seminar, and, in his spare time, entertains visiting cultural dignitaries from all over the world. One student says of him, “Leon is fairly approachable and sometimes self-deprecating. But his overly confident, slightly pretentious side usually prevails. These latter qualities may be instrumental to getting funding at Bard.”

Botstein, like all impresarios, has his critics. He is at times dictatorial but always fearless, a visionary, open to new ideas and widely known for his generosity. He has extended invitations to dissident artists and scientists facing political asylum including Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie and the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. Achebe tells me, “Things aren’t good in my country. I am in serious trouble with the government in Nigeria – but this is not new. I think the purpose of being here and writing is to make the world better.”

The past few years have seen a new phase in the life of Bard, beginning with the opening of the Richard B Fisher Center for Performing Arts, designed by Frank Gehry, in 2003. It was Botstein’s idea to ask Gehry to design the 10,200 sq m building – a decision that was considered a huge risk at the time. “We hired Gehry before Bilbao and before he became a household name. But we knew he had the imagination to solve the problem of how to create a performing arts building of scale in a rural setting that would not look like a giant FedEx box.”

Tambra Dillon, director of the Fisher Center, joined Bard in 2005 and swiftly set to work expanding on the college’s policy of commissioning radical and innovative artists. Last summer she brought in Kasper Bech Holten, director of the Royal Danish Opera Company, to direct a modern opera. She then shipped over a Spiegeltent from Belgium – the first one ever seen in America. This hand-built cabaret tent, which staged live shows, circuses and after-hours DJs, became a hugely fun gathering place after performances at the Fisher Center.

This summer the Austrian opera director Olivier Tambosi is staging two operas, with Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. The sets will be designed by the eccentric artists McDermott & McGough.

According to Dillon, “Leon Botstein believes that classical music is an endangered species and wants it presented in a way that audiences can relate to. But what is interesting about Bard is that Botstein, with his overt personality, has been quietly working under the radar to create this cultural powerhouse and it’s now ready to pop. Bard’s time has come.”

The opening of the new Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College last autumn has added yet another new dimension to the cultural life of the school. The New York Times described the museum as a place where “they can let art stay crazy and exciting”. On 7 July the Turner prize-winning artist Martin Creed will open his first US exhibition there, and there will be a variety show at the Spiegeltent.

Standing in the sun-filled lobby at the Hessel Museum, Tom Eccles, the curator, summed it up: “Bard is not just a college any more, but a destination.”

Meet the Bard set

On a sunny spring afternoon just weeks away from graduation for most of them, six Bard students met us to talk about their studies and plans for the future. These are the next generation of artists, dancers and MacArthur geniuses.

01 - Jane Wong

Literature & Creative Writing

Born and raised in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, Wong finished Bard with a spectacular bang: for her senior project she wrote a collection of short stories exploring themes of domesticity, marriage and miscommunication, then won a Fulbright scholarship for creative writing. She’ll travel to Hong Kong in September, but not before completing another fellowship at Naropa University in Japan as a Zora Neale Hurston scholar. Wong says that she “would like to be teaching creative writing as a professor” within 10 years and also to “have published a book or two” and “learnt to swim.”

02 - Jesse Kohl

Chemistry

Kohl – who is a native of Forest Grove, Oregon – is typical of Bard’s overachievers. His senior project explored the chemistry and artistry of glass-blowing and was supported by a $50,000 (€37,000) research budget from the Corning Museum. While ruminating post-graduate work in the field of glass technology, he plays in a chamber ensemble and sells his glass creations in galleries. “I’m an excellent technician,” he acknowledges, “but broadening my unique artistic horizons is an area I have to work on.” That is, when he’s not preserving antique pipe organs. “I keep myself busy,” he says.

03 - Caroline Roszell

Environmental Studies

In her senior thesis Roszell examined the social side of environmental issues. This summer she’ll put that knowledge to work in the real world, joining up with the Green Guerillas, which provides resources and training for low-income community gardens in the Bronx. Roszell says she will be doing “a combination of community outreach and agriculture work. After that, I might join the Peace Corps or work in agriculture or study plant and soil science – creating agriculture systems that mimic natural eco-systems.” At Bard she is a Jill of all trades: president of the philosophy club, anti-war activist and personal fitness instructor.

04 - Kate Newman

Anthropology/African Studies

Even at Bard, not many students speak Wolof. But Newman does. For her senior project she studied Senegalese immigrant identity in New York, which earned her a Watson fellowship. She’ll use it to study cultural exhibits at children’s museums in Australia, India, Argentina and Morocco, while learning Arabic and Spanish (she already speaks French). Raised in Chicago, she became interested in African studies after taking classes with Chinua Achebe and the Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala. When her fellowship is over, she says, “I see myself doing some kind of creative international social justice work – whatever that is!”

05 - Niki Schur-Narula and Nicole Halpern

Psychology & Art History

Schur-Narula and Halpern, from Bangkok and Long Island, respectively, have just finished their freshman year. Schur-Narula enjoys Bard’s “liberal political bent” and is considering being a professor himself one day. Halpern raves about her own professors, and was especially impressed by her Roman Urbanism class. She hopes to work as an art journalist one day, or own a gallery. To that end she has secured an internship at New York’s Franklin Parish art gallery this summer, while Schur-Narula will busy himself in Thailand, working for his father’s organic food company.

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