1981 formal dedication of Mason Gross School of the Arts

In the beginning

The Mason Gross School of the Arts was founded in 1976 as the arts conservatory of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Established at the request of Rutgers’ 17th president, Edward J. Bloustein, it was formed through the gradual consolidation of the various arts programs within the four colleges then in existence on the university’s New Brunswick/Piscataway campus: Rutgers College, Douglass College, Livingston College, and University College. Initially called the School of Creative and Performing Arts, it was renamed the Mason Gross School of the Arts in 1979 in honor of Mason Welch Gross (1911-1977), beloved professor of philosophy, 16th president of Rutgers University, television quiz-show panelist, and staunch advocate of the arts in New Brunswick.

The school initially consisted of master’s degree programs in music, theater, and visual arts, with a total of 90 graduate students. Undergraduate programs in dance, music, theater, and visual arts were soon added and enrollment grew rapidly, reaching 612 students in 1989, 770 students in 2000, and nearly 1,200 students in 2019.

As school enrollment grew, so did its performance and exhibition spaces: Nicholas Music Center, designed by the renowned Italian architect Pietro Belluschi, the architect of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City, was completed in 1981, New Theater (now Mastrobuono Theater) in 1991, Civic Square Building in 1995, Mortensen Hall in 2013, and the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (NBPAC) in Downtown New Brunswick in 2019. The school presently encompasses 23 buildings on four campuses.

The Blanche and Irving Laurie Music Library was dedicated in 1984 as part of the Mabel Smith Douglass Library on the Douglass campus. Transformed into the Laurie Performing Arts Library in 2008, it now serves Dance and Theater as well as Music. The library houses approximately 31,000 books and 46,000 scores as well as 40,000 recordings. The research complex also includes a high-tech computer lab with Finale software.

Theater actor, director, and playwright Jack Bettenbender (left) served as first dean of the school, from 1976 until his death in 1988. Bettenbender directed hundreds of theatrical productions, both at Rutgers and in New York City. In 1981, the School of Creative and Performing Arts was formally dedicated as the Mason Gross School of the Arts, with then-Gov. Brendan Byrne, and artist Joan Mondale, wife of then-Vice President Walter Mondale, in attendance (top).

Following Bettenbender’s death, musicologist Marilyn Somville assumed leadership of the school, serving as dean from 1990 to 2000. Somville oversaw the relocation of the Visual Arts Department into the Civic Square Building in downtown New Brunswick and established Rutgers SummerFest, an ambitious series of concerts, plays, and dance productions presented by school ensembles and guest artists.

Going global

George B. Stauffer has served as dean since 2000. Stauffer established the Rutgers in New York and Mason Gross Presents performing- and fine-art series as well three divisions: the Extension Division (2008) for the education of children and adults in the surrounding communities; Rutgers Arts Online (2010) for the creation of web-based instruction in the arts; and the Rutgers Filmmaking Center (2011), which produces narrative and documentary films in collaboration with other units of the university.

In its present configuration the Mason Gross School encompasses four departments–Art & Design, Dance, Music, and Theater–and three divisions–Rutgers Arts Online, Rutgers Community Arts, and the Rutgers Filmmaking Center. Its nearly 1,200 students come from 33 states and 22 countries.  

In addition, the school presents annual performances and exhibits in New York City in such venues as Avery Fisher Hall, Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall, the Joyce Theater, the Blue Note, White Box Gallery, and Broadway's Majestic Theatre.

International programs include exchanges with Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in Greenwich, England; National Taiwan University of the Arts in Taipei, Taiwan; Academy of the Arts in Munich, Germany, and a year-long residency program for actors and designers at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. For the past five years it has been the most selective undergraduate school at Rutgers.