Moving to Center Stage: Arts

Artist Maria Molteni helps Harvard Professor and Radcliffe Fellow Hans Tutschku install a multimedia exhibit created with students from the Harvard Dance Program. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff PhotographerArtist Maria Molteni helps Harvard Professor and Radcliffe Fellow Hans Tutschku install a multimedia exhibit created with students from the Harvard Dance Program. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer
Harvard Gazette
May 26, 2014
By Colleen Walsh

Half a century ago, a sweeping, curved concrete structure opened next to the iconic Georgian Revival-style Fogg Art Museum. Architectural purists howled. The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, architect LeCorbusier’s only building in North America, defied a beloved aesthetic. But it also set off a critical discussion about creativity, and helped to spur an exciting era for the arts at Harvard. By 2024, the arts at Harvard promise to be equally daring, with myriad changes in how they are practiced, studied, and displayed.

According to several scholars and administrators, the University’s future curriculum is likely to feature courses that fuse traditionally disparate areas such as music and neuroscience, building on current efforts to incorporate art and art-making into a range of formerly walled-off disciplines. It is likely that undergraduates will find new arts concentrations and secondary fields, beyond the visual arts, theater, and architecture. Graduate students will have more arts-related courses and more ways to incorporate the arts into dissertations and theses.

Students will connect to Harvard’s collections in original, dynamic ways, officials say. The University’s physical campus will evolve too, with new spaces for viewing, studying, and making art. Interdisciplinary collaborations will explore ways in which the arts at Harvard can help to change the world by fueling the next generation of cultural entrepreneurs.

In the curriculum

In 2007, Harvard President Drew Faust assembled a task force to explore how the arts could fill a greater role in campus life. The following year, the committee released a report saying the arts needed to be an “integral part of the cognitive life of the University.” In the years that followed, in line with those recommendations, scholars began offering a range of courses that merge art-making with the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences.

Why study the humanities at Harvard? Leading faculty and engaged students offer their reasons.

“If I were to imagine the University in five, 10 years’ time, it would be one in which artistic and humanistic practice is incorporated in the discrete fields that practice the arts and humanities, whether it’s literature or filmmaking or art-making or art criticism, but further, in which humanistic and artistic practices are in dialogue with other fields,” said Diana Sorensen, Harvard’s dean of arts and humanities.

“It could be engineering and the visual arts; it could be science and philosophy; it could be questions of economics and the study of local cultures. … The University of the future has to think of intellectual problems, which are in and of themselves worthy of disinterested attention, but also — this I would underline — the world as posing problems that can only be addressed and resolved by bringing all the disciplines together.”

“In five or 10 years’ time, Harvard would really look like an arts school in addition to being everything else that it is already,” Sorensen said.

Like Sorensen, Jill Johnson, director of Harvard’s Dance Program, envisions an arts landscape that blends artistic practice and study with other fields. Dance, Johnson said, can influence motion capture design, urban planning and architecture, biomechaniccs and cognition, “not to mention the fiscal impact of the arts on community and economic development, or dance’s metaphorical place is business or lawmaking.”

“At Harvard, dance, the arts, and the humanities can be a part of an integrated course of study that helps us prepare students to negotiate the world.”

Art as scholarship will play a role in Harvard’s future, according to Robb Moss, chair of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. As professors increasingly incorporate art into their classrooms, he said, encouraging students toward creative outlets like making a film instead of writing a paper, the very nature of scholarship can be potentially redefined.

“There’s a thought out there that’s gaining some kind of momentum that it might be possible for visual and audio of a different sort, work that we traditionally think of as art, to move into the arena of scholarship that perhaps offers differing ways of knowing the world,” said Moss. “It’s an open possibility, and the work itself will begin to define the field in the next 10 years.”

For much of Harvard’s history, the arts have been considered part of the extracurricular realm, with thousands of students participating in more than 100 student-led musical, performance, and visual arts groups supported by the Office for the Arts. But this year, for the first time, students received College credit for participation in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. Many observers consider that change a milestone for the intellectual legitimacy of the arts.

“This migration represents a validation of this work as a serious, University-worthy, academic endeavor,” said Jack Megan, who directs the Office for the Arts.

On the near horizon for Harvard students is a new concentration in theater, dance, and media that blends historical and theoretical study with arts practice. The future may bring a master of fine arts program or graduate programs in the arts that would capitalize on Harvard’s strengths in areas such as documentary film or creative writing and encourage artists to work across various fields.

There is an advantage in creating something like that from scratch, said Cogan University Professor Stephen Greenblatt, chair of the Task Force on the Arts.

“We have the human resources, and we have the intellectual power to do something amazing, truly at a global scale. We are in the position to be able to rethink in a completely innovative way the redrawing of the boundaries of arts and the humanities and the sciences.”

The physical spaces

In the future, Harvard will have even more performance, exhibit, and art-making spaces. One suggestion would organize an arts corridor along Garden Street with housing for artists in residence, a creative-writing center, art studios, and greater collaboration among the nearby Harvard Dance Center, Arts @ 29 Garden, and the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.).

Arts officials expect to see more public art installations on campus, building on the success of the Common Spaces initiative that introduced a collection of colorful chairs and theater and music performances into the Old Yard and the renovated Science Center Plaza.

“I’d like to see more art all around us,” said Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, who helped to develop a biennial public art competition in which students from across the University compete to build a site-specific installation in Radcliffe’s Yard. “In 10 years, I would hope to see a Harvard campus that is very stimulating aesthetically and reminds us as we move through it that our campus is a canvas that should reflect the same brilliance and creativity that we find in the University’s museums, libraries, and classrooms.”

In November, the renovated and expanded Harvard Art Museums will allow students, faculty, and the public to engage with and study their vast collections in dynamic new ways.

Some in Harvard’s arts community envision a space like the popular i-lab, replicating an incubator of innovation and entrepreneurship, dedicated to the arts.

“I think there is an opportunity to do something extravagant and wonderful in Allston,” said Moss. “The nanotechnologists are walking next to the sculptors are walking next to the anthropologists are walking next to theoretical physicists. … For me, that would be a kind of dream, to integrate the arts into the sciences and social sciences in some structural, architectural way.”

An international ripple

Ten years out, more artists will be at Harvard for broader residencies, bringing with them more global perspectives. Musicians have led the way. Jazz artist Herbie Hancock delivered this year’s Norton Lectures, an arts tradition since 1924. Over the past four years, trumpeter and lecturer Wynton Marsalis connected listeners to the cultural currents and critical history behind decades of groundbreaking music and dance.

Scholars see a bright future for the Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge, which awards grants for projects that help to promote and sustain the arts. Developed in partnership with Harvard Business School, the division of arts and humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, a nonprofit inspired by the cultural exchange along ancient Eurasian trade routes, the competition has spawned a host of creative startups, including last year’s grand prize winners, who developed an online platform that connects users to art and artists in their area.

Improving the world is a driving ethos for A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus. In planning her performance season, Paulus told the Gazette last year, she searches out works that will “catalyze dialogue, catalyze debate, shows that will reach beyond the stage into an energy that will bring a community together around an issue, a topic, a point of view.” She is pushing the boundaries of the stage, collaborating with departments and Schools from across the University.

“It’s not arts in a silo,” said Paulus. “It’s arts actively reaching across to crack open the most important issues of our times.” Paulus will continue to collaborate with artists beyond Harvard. The A.R.T. is developing a project called “Nomad Two Worlds” with artists from Australia working with Harvard undergraduates.

“The notion of a global Harvard is something I’ve taken to heart. We now live in an age where we can collaborate with artists from all over the world.”

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