KU News: Spencer Museum of Art receives $3 million gift to endow Arts Research Integration

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Spencer Museum of Art receives $3 million gift to endow Arts Research Integration
LAWRENCE — The Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas has received a $3 million gift from Kansas City-based donor Margaret H. Silva to endow Arts Research Integration (ARI), a groundbreaking initiative that brings artists into a wide range of research processes through interdisciplinary collaborations. Additionally, Silva has offered to support a challenge grant, led by the Spencer Museum, up to an additional $1 million of financial support for the initiative.

Idea of ice age ‘species pump’ in the Philippines boosted by new way of drawing evolutionary trees
LAWRENCE — Scientists have long thought the unique geography of the Philippines — coupled with seesawing ocean levels — could have created a “species pump” that triggered massive diversification by isolating, then reconnecting, groups of species again and again on islands. They call the idea the “Pleistocene aggregate island complex model” of diversification. But hard evidence, connecting bursts of speciation to the precise times that global sea levels rose and fell, has been scant until now, based on new research with roots at the University of Kansas.

Full stories below.

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Contact: Elizabeth Kanost, Spencer Museum of Art, 785-864-0142, [email protected], @SpencerMuseum
Spencer Museum of Art receives $3 million gift to endow Arts Research Integration

LAWRENCE — The Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas has received a $3 million gift from Kansas City-based donor Margaret H. Silva to endow Arts Research Integration (ARI), a groundbreaking initiative that brings artists into a wide range of research processes through interdisciplinary collaborations. Additionally, Silva has offered to support a challenge grant, led by the Spencer Museum, up to another $1 million of financial support for the initiative. These gifts build on Silva’s prior contributions to ARI, which began in 2018, and recognize the significance of the initiative to making art core to the study and manifestation of ideas. The gift is essential to advancing ARI’s work on current projects, including those with artists Janine Antoni, Simon Denny and Stephanie Dinkins, and to securing ARI’s future as an incubator for new research approaches as well as for the development of new models for how museums can engage artists and communities. Silva’s gift will be administered through KU Endowment, the foundation that supports KU.

The Spencer Museum first initiated ARI in 2016 with a four-year grant from the Mellon Foundation. The initiative allowed the Spencer to embed artists directly into the high-level research happening at KU, enhancing the university’s research ecology by positioning the creation of art as an essential research methodology in its own right — one that is critical to breaking down barriers and supporting public understanding of timely and relevant topics. Core to the initiative are public engagement opportunities that support knowledge sharing and encourage greater community involvement. Among the recent projects completed through ARI is a collaboration among artist Janet Biggs, then KU mathematician Agnieszka Międlar and KU physicist Daniel Tapia Takaki, who also leads a team at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Their work explored questions in high energy physics and applied novel mathematical techniques to the production of video and performance, resulting in an exhibition and numerous public and academic talks in the U.S. and abroad. These types of projects emphasize process and dialogue, leaving ample room for discovery and opening up traditional research paradigms to new structures and approaches.

“ARI brings artists together with researchers, scholars, professors and students to explore subjects deeply relevant to our lives and communities and, in doing so, makes creative practices central to the process of inquiry and innovation. It is very much about moving beyond conversations about the importance of art to making art part of the study and exploration of our world and integral to tackling pressing issues,” said Joey Orr, ARI’s Mellon Curator for Research. “We are deeply grateful to Margaret Silva for her ongoing support and for her impactful endowment gift, which will allow ARI to continue to grow and develop well into the future.”

“I’m delighted to continue to support the important work of ARI at the Spencer,” said Silva. “Art and artists have an incredible way of asking big questions, challenging current and outmoded thinking, motivating change and creating solutions for seemingly intractable problems. I have proudly supported daring, provocative and forward-looking art projects over many years and am continuing that personal mission with my contributions to this initiative. I look forward to engaging with the many upcoming projects and ideas that will result from ARI’s exciting work.”

ARI builds on a long history of ambitious, interdisciplinary initiatives and projects at the Spencer Museum. As early as the 1970s, museum leadership began advocating for educational models that integrated art across curriculum study. A groundbreaking vision for the role of the arts at the time, this approach has become a standard at many universities across the United States. Over the decades, the Spencer Museum has continued to innovate in its vision of connecting art with science, technology and the humanities, leveraging its resources to establish new ways of learning. In recent history, this has resulted in programs like Hybrid Practices, an international conference in 2015 that featured a broad spectrum of speakers and performative and creative projects that focused on collaborative arts, science and technology research from the prior 50 years. The conference was the culmination of three years of work, led by Saralyn Reece Hardy, the Spencer’s Marilyn Stokstad Director; Celka Straughn, Mellon Director of Academic Programs; and Stephen Goddard, the museum’s then senior curator.

“The Spencer has long believed that the arts have a major role to play in shaping policy, developing new technologies, and engaging and connecting with the natural and built world around us. Art has the power to move us and bring us together. It offers different ways of looking, thinking and experiencing that are essential to discovery and progress. ARI is part of a longstanding trajectory of interdisciplinary and collaborative work led by the Spencer, and we are so thankful to Margaret for her endowment gift that ensures and secures this ongoing work at the museum,” said Reece Hardy. “While ARI has focused in recent years on contemporary art and artists, the long-term vision for the initiative is to activate the whole of the museum and its collections, across time and culture. Margaret’s incredible contribution is essential to this growth.”

ARI is currently engaged in two ongoing projects with artists. One connects New York–based Bahamian artist Janine Antoni with researchers at the KU Field Station at the Kansas Biological Survey & Center for Ecological Research. The Field Station offers more than 3,700 acres of diverse native and managed habitats available for emerging research. For the project, Antoni is particularly focused on the prairie ecosystem, one of the most diverse and endangered ecosystems outside of the rainforest and one that has nearly disappeared across the United States. Antoni, whose artistic practice actively engages the body, is working with researchers to make connections between the intricacy of the prairie environment and the human body. Specifically, she is creating a labyrinth on the land in the shape of the anatomy of the human ear that will invite people to walk a path and meditate on topics such as human anatomy, listening, embodiment, ecological systems, wildlife and cultural histories. The project kicked off this past spring with a prescribed field burning, a natural process that rejuvenates the prairie, with the support of Field Station researchers. Antoni joined this important ecological remediation with a ritual experience for the public that allowed them to relate to the land through acts of personal healing. When humans form a relationship of reciprocity with the earth, both humans and the environment can flourish. At the heart of the project is an invitation for the public to return to the body through intimately relating to the land.

“I make my best work when I have the flexibility to respond to my own process,” said Antoni. “The land tells us something, and I respond. Part of what is special about my work through ARI is the opportunity to respect the process and listen to all of our human and non-human collaborators.”

ARI is also currently working with Brooklyn-based artist Stephanie Dinkins, Berlin-based artist Simon Denny and Perry Alexander, AT&T Foundation Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, on a project using blockchain technology. The project is a collaboration with the Institute for Information Sciences, one of the largest research centers at KU, and The History of Black Writing, a research unit committed to recovery work in Black literary studies. The commission is supported in part through a grant from Ripple, a Silicon Valley finance company. Some of the group’s core interests include challenging the technology’s claim to secure timelines and means for transaction with poetic disruptions to history and sparking conversations about parallel histories, reparations, technology, art and more.

About Margaret H. Silva
Margaret H. Silva, a philanthropist and arts advocate, has supported the work of artists for more than three decades. A native of the Midwest, her passion is the result of lifelong engagement with art and artists and a belief in the power and significance of creative experiences and endeavors. In 1995, she founded and funded Grand Arts, a nonprofit contemporary art space in Kansas City. Over the course of 20 years, Grand Arts helped more than 100 national and international artists realize dynamic and provocative projects and fostered dialogue and new thinking about big picture societal issues and questions. Although Grand Arts closed in 2015 and Silva formally retired, the organization’s ethos lives on in a new endeavor titled Fathomers, launched by Grand Arts’ associates and collaborators. Since then, Silva has continued to support the arts through her philanthropy.

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Contact: Brendan Lynch, KU News Service, 785-864-8855, [email protected], @BrendanMLynch
Idea of ice age ‘species pump’ in the Philippines boosted by new way of drawing evolutionary trees
LAWRENCE — Does the Philippines’ astonishing biodiversity result in part from rising and falling seas during the ice ages?
Scientists have long thought the unique geography of the Philippines — coupled with seesawing ocean levels — could have created a “species pump” that triggered massive diversification by isolating, then reconnecting, groups of species again and again on islands. They call the idea the “Pleistocene aggregate island complex (PAIC) model” of diversification.
But hard evidence, connecting bursts of speciation to the precise times that global sea levels rose and fell, has been scant until now.
A groundbreaking Bayesian method and new statistical analyses of genomic data from geckos in the Philippines shows that during the ice ages, the timing of gecko diversification gives strong statistical support for the first time to the PAIC model, or “species pump.” The investigation, with roots at the University of Kansas, was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The Philippines is an isolated archipelago, currently including more than 7,100 islands, but this number was dramatically reduced, possibly to as few as six or seven giant islands, during the Pleistocene,” said co-author Rafe Brown, curator-in-charge of the herpetology division of the Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum at KU. “The aggregate landmasses were composed of many of today’s smaller islands, which became connected together by dry land as sea levels fell, and all that water was tied up in glaciers. It’s been hypothesized that this kind of fragmentation and fusion of land, which happened as sea levels repeatedly fluctuated over the last 4 million years, sets the stage for a special evolutionary process, which may have triggered simultaneous clusters or bursts of speciation in unrelated organisms present at the time. In this case, we tested this prediction in two different genera of lizards, each with species found only in the Philippines.”
For decades, the Philippines has been a hotbed of fieldwork by biologists with KU’s Biodiversity Institute, where the authors analyzed genetic samples of Philippine geckos as well as other animals. However, even with today’s technology and scientists’ ability to characterize variation from across the genome, the development of powerful statistical approaches capable of handling genome-scale data is still catching up — particularly in challenging cases, like the task of estimating past times that species formed, using genetic data collected from populations surviving today.
Lead author Jamie Oaks of Auburn University and co-author Cameron Siler of the University of Oklahoma were both KU graduate students advised by Brown. They were joined by co-author Perry Wood Jr., now at the University of Michigan, who recently worked at Auburn with Oaks and, earlier at KU with Brown, as a postdoctoral researcher.
For two centuries, naturalists who studied species distributions in the Philippines have discussed, debated and written extensively about the ideas behind modern species pump theory or, in the Philippines, predictions now making up the “PAIC Paradigm.” Historically, researchers focusing on particular animals or plants have endorsed the general idea, but others expressed skepticism because it didn’t seem to hold up in other species they studied.
“Over the last quarter century, with widespread availability of genetic data, the model’s specific predictions have been tested much more rigorously, objectively and quantitatively — with real data from natural populations — which was a major step forward in Philippine biogeography,” Brown said. “In some animals and plants, predictions held up. But in others, when the same predictions were tested with real data and appropriately rigorous statistical methods, they were rejected over and over. In many of our own studies at KU, when we examined corollaries of the PAIC model in individual genera, or groups of closely related species, we were surprised to find the ice ages time window wasn’t even related to much of the species diversity we find today. In study after study, individually focusing on a genus of bats, or a group of frogs, we found that fewer and fewer of today’s species seemed to have diverged in the Pleistocene. At that point, with a lack of evidence piling up, we kind of rephrased the question. We went back to the data from all those earlier studies and asked — across all these different groups of animals, can we find any statistical support for species formation, clustered in the Pleistocene time window? And the answer kept coming back ‘no’ — until now.”
Brown said the key to understanding the genomic evidence came from Oaks, who started looking at gecko groups with a new approach to conceiving phylogenetic trees. Instead of one species branching from another in isolation — as phylogenetic trees are traditionally drawn — a plethora of new species might branch away at roughly the same time in something that looks more like a “shrub” than a tree.
“Shared ancestry underlies everything in biology, whether it’s a gene sequence, viral strain or species,” Oaks said. “Each branching point on a phylogenetic tree represents biological diversification — for example, one species diverging into two. We have long assumed the processes responsible for these divergence events affect each species on the tree of life in isolation. However, we have long appreciated that this assumption is likely often violated. For example, changes to the environment will affect whole communities of species, not just one. Our approach allows multiple species to diversify due to a shared process. By doing so, we are now better equipped to ask questions about such processes and test for the patterns they predict.”
By relaxing the assumption of independent divergences, the genomic data from Philippine geckos supported patterns of shared divergences, as “predicted by repeated fragmentation of the archipelago by interglacial rises in sea level,” according to the researchers.
“This type of pattern of shared divergences can now be tested with our new phylogenetic approach,” Oaks said. “Gekko and Cyrtodactylus are two genera of geckos that are good test cases to look for these patterns, because they have been widespread across the Philippines since long before glacial cycles started, and so we know they were present on the large ice age islands, when they were fragmented by rising sea levels. We used information from their genomes to reconstruct their phylogenetic trees and test for patterns of shared divergences predicted by the island-fragmentation hypothesis. We did find support for such patterns, and now we see evidence for the effect of the glacial cycles, but it’s important to remember that the overall phylogenetic history of these lizards is consistent with a more complex story.”
With this part of the “species pump” hypothesis now supported in the Philippines, Brown said there are many other cases where biogeographers could use the same approach to detect geographic or environmental changes that touched off similar explosions of biodiversity.
“The idea that some barrier could affect unrelated groups like birds, frogs, lizards and insects — possibly impacting whole faunas together at the same time — has been something evolutionary biologists have been grasping at for a long time. But strong support for simultaneous timing of these processes has been kind of elusive,” Brown said. “There are lots of theories about shared mechanisms, and the ‘species pump’ idea is just one of them. But, in general, common mechanisms of diversification, or shared processes of speciation, have always been big, tantalizing topics for evolutionary biologists, especially for biogeographers.”
The PNAS research in the form of a preprint also is available at the open access science repository bioRxiv. Oaks showcased the new approach in 2021 at the annual meetings of the Society for the Study of Evolution’s and, next month, Brown will share it with the scientific community in the Philippines while attending the 4th Southeast Asian Gateway to Evolution (SAGE) meetings, in Manila.

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