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  • Writer's pictureBeth & Tim Manners

Purchase Tour: An Arts-Industrial Complex

When Purchase College first opened its doors in 1967, Nelson Rockefeller called it “the cultural gem” of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. It certainly has lived up to its billing throughout the intervening decades, with its dance and theater conservatories rising to rank among America’s finest. The school’s famously sculpture-dotted campus is also home to an arts-industrial complex boasting five theaters as well as the Neuberger, one of the nation’s largest art museums. Yet, 60% of Purchase’s approximately 4,000 undergraduates are not artists, musicians or actors; they are liberal-arts majors.

This small surprise speaks to the very thing that makes Purchase interesting; it is rare for a school to be so evenly split between the liberal and performing arts. This introduces opportunities to cross-pollinate studies and explore unlikely connections between the arts, a journey that Purchase actively encourages. Indeed, every student is required to devote a full year to a senior-year thesis, work one-on-one with a professor, and pull together a theme that may be expressed through performance, art, writing, or otherwise.

That’s just the first, and probably most noteworthy, of Purchase’s quirks. The school’s location, directly across the street from the PepsiCo world headquarters and just 30 miles north of New York City, also intrigues. Then there’s its airspace, periodically pierced by low-flying aircraft, ascending or descending into a neighboring airport. All of this would suggest a bustling suburban, if not urban, campus. It belies that Purchase sits on a 500-acre, flat expanse of former farmland that looks more likely to be in Wisconsin than Westchester.

As it happens, the campus was designed to convey a sense of open boundaries and distant horizons, with its center consciously tucked into a cluster of curiously uniform, borderline brutalist, brown-brick buildings. Other structures are flung so far out into the campus perimeter that our tour guide joked that the gymnasium was in Connecticut. In fact, it practically is.

The brown-brick motif offers yet another surprise. It creates the illusion that the buildings were all drawn by the same architect to a decidedly uniform effect. Not so. The school’s original buildings were designed by a collective of no fewer than five renowned architects, including the legendary Philip Johnson. The master plan was that if the various architects all used the same shade of brick, it would bring cohesion to what otherwise might have descended into chaos.

In any case, Purchase likes to point out that it’s what goes on inside these buildings that matters. A quick walk through the student center, in particular, suggested that it’s a point well-taken. The center’s mild façade yields to a punk-rock interior. Dark and cavernous, with an exposed ceiling and walls festooned with wild, student-rendered murals, it hosts the annual Zombie Prom and Fall Ball Drag Queen, King and Quing shows, among other eccentric happenings.

Purchase also takes pride in its annual “Culture Shock” festival, a pre-finals Coachella-style event with food, carnival rides and musical guests that have included the pre-famous Drake, among others. Its dorms, meanwhile, carry whimsical names like Wayback, Outback, Farside and Fort Awesome. The official school colors? Heliotrope and Puce, which are shades of purple-pink and purple-brown. Not super attractive, but Purchase embraces it. Legend has it that the colors were selected by students on a lark, apparently not realizing that their choice would stick. This was the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, after all.

Fortunately, the school’s Division 3 teams, the Panthers, wear a more conventional blue, orange and white, a carryover from when the New York Knicks trained on campus. The Panthers play every sport except football, and like to say that they bring a Division 1 attitude to their games.

Fiske rates Purchase a best-value school, which may be putting it mildly. The approximately 85% of its students who are New York residents pay only about $7,000 a year in tuition, and another $14,000 or so for room and board. Even those from outside New York remit just $17,000 in annual tuition. Some 70% of students receive some form of financial aid, averaging about $11,000.

Getting in is not exactly a snap, though, especially where the conservatories are concerned, given its reported admit rate of about 10%. Hopefuls must upload a portfolio and then audition and interview for a coveted spot. The liberal-arts process is not nearly as rigorous, but still competitive, with about 45% of applicants admitted. Ranked by US News as a top-10 public liberal-arts college, Purchase is test-optional, with an average GPA of about 3.0. Every applicant is required to respond to a prompt based on the school’s motto: Think Wide Open. This can be a photo, drawing, video or essay.

"Think Wide Open" surely is a fitting phrase for a 500-acre school with just 4,000 students, that offers an unusual combination of performing and liberal arts.

As we wrapped up our tour, we crossed paths with a tall, lanky, long-haired fellow sporting artistic facial hair. If not for his silvery locks, we might have mistaken him for a student. Our curiosity was piqued when our tour guide casually greeted him by his first name, as if he were indeed a classmate. Turned out he was a professor, and such informality, while not necessarily universal, is not unusual at Purchase.

That single exchange probably said more about the spirit of the place than anything else we saw or heard, and a reminder that colleges should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their ... colors.

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