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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Arts' Rising Place

May-June 2004

The practice of the arts is in the ascendant at Harvard. And even though there is not now enough space to contain this explosion of student talent and creativity, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), in a move that bodes well for future artistic endeavors, is creating new opportunities for integrating the practice of the arts into the curriculum.

Half the College population participates in the arts. There are a thousand musicians, nearly as many students involved in drama, more than 600 dancers (fully 22 percent of undergraduate women participated in dance last year), and 300 to 400 practitioners of the visual arts. There are 43 music organizations, including five orchestras, two jazz bands, six choruses, and 12 a capella groups. There are 19 student dance groups and 16 drama organizations. "Harvard is attracting an increasingly diverse and more artistically connected community of students than it did 15, 20, or 30 years ago," says Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts.

Harvard's 600 dancers—including 22 percent of undergraduate women—will lose their dedicated space, the Reiman Dance Center, when it reverts to Radcliffe in 2005.
Photograph by Ruby Arguilla / Harvard News Office

That is very good news for anyone who cares about a vibrant student arts community. But it has led to serious space shortages, particularly because room for arts has actually been contracting even as student interest has grown. Harvard's colossally expensive orchestral harp, for example, used in performances at Sanders Theatre, keeps company in a maintenance closet with a timpani, vacuum cleaners, dirty mops and buckets, and bottles of cleaning liquids. This is not an oversight. Think of it as a metaphor for the arts at Harvard: overflowing with talent, democratic in the extreme, and tucked away into the most unlikely places.

What accounts for burgeoning student interest in the practice of the arts? Megan says "students with a real gift in the practice of the arts are seeing Harvard as a place where they can come and achieve things without being plugged into the rigor and narrowness of a conservatory environment. They can take the time to explore other parts of their lives." Harvard has nurtured a community of artists who will in some cases, Megan says, "have careers in the field and influence development of that form." He cites playwright Christopher Durang '71, saxophone player Josh Redman '91, director Peter Sellars '80, actor John Lithgow '67, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma '76, D.Mus. '91: "Harvard's developed an environment where people like that want to come and do fine work and then go on and do great work."

Furthermore, Megan notes, as Harvard becomes more culturally diverse, "students who arrive here, who come from a given cultural background, want to find ways of expressing that, and they are looking beyond the traditional means." Forty years ago, a glee club, a chorus, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra might have encompassed the needs of most student musicians for artistic expression. "But now," he says, "we have students who come from a tradition of gospel music or who are, for instance, Indian, and have a background in the tabla or sitar." In dance, there are not only ballet and jazz, but also the Asian-American dance troupe, the Ballet Folklórico de Aztlan, the Caribbean Club Dance Troupe, the Israeli Dance Troupe, and the South Asian Dance organization.

"These organizations make this an exciting and incredibly interesting place, as students who grew up in one cultural tradition suddenly see a whole new form of artistic expression," notes Megan. Facilitated by physical proximity, there has been an increase in creative collaborations among students in drama, dance, and music, he says. "Students crave that kind of interaction."

Photograph by Rose Lincoln / Harvard News Office

The annual Arts First celebration—including theater, dance and music—showcases student talent and dedication to their extracurricular pursuits. Faculty are weighing how to bring more of the arts into the curriculum.

Photograph by Ruby Arguilla / Harvard News Office

Now Harvard has what Megan terms a nice problem: "It needs more space." A solution might not be so difficult if "the arts were the only area in which there were space needs, but athletics has needs, there is need for more classroom space, there is need for more housing," and so "it is a complicated situation."

Even within the arts, the problem is bigger than a first glance might suggest. "When people thinks 'arts space,' it is not uncommon for them to think, 'the room where the art happens, the performance space, the stage, the seats, the orchestra, the balcony'—that that's the space," says Megan. But needed as well is all kinds of support space: for people who manage these facilities; for showers, locker rooms, prop rooms, set rooms, shops, practice rooms—all over campus. "Where are you going to put a thousand student musicians?" he asks.

Megan is optimistic that short- and long-term solutions to the problem will be found, he says, because President Lawrence H. Summers has "come to understand and value the arts community at Harvard, and he understands that the space issue is very significant." Last spring, Summers told students and faculty at the Arts First festival, "We owe our student performers physical spaces, rooms for rehearsals, and opportunities for instruction that are as good as they are...."

Many of them are very good indeed. Cellist Han-Na Chang '06 has twice been nominated for a Grammy Award. The works of pianist and composer Anthony Cheung '04 are already being played by professional orchestras. Austin Guest '03 ('05) is an "accomplished director doing marvelous and creative theater," Megan says. Violinist Stefan Jackiw '07 has an international performance career (he performs briefly on-line at http://athome.harvard.edu/dh/haf.html; click "highlights" and choose "solo violin").

If the quality of the space is to match the caliber of undergraduates' artistic achievements, Harvard has set the bar high. But renovations will ease some of the pressure, says dean of Harvard College Benedict H. Gross (himself a violist as well as a mathematician). Though undergraduates have lost some use of Agassiz Theatre to the Radcliffe Institute, Gross is trying to raise money for a $25-million renovation of the Hasty Pudding Theater into a general undergraduate theater, which he hopes will begin in the spring of 2005. In the fall of that year, undergraduate dancers will lose their extraordinary Reiman Dance Center, when that space reverts to the Radcliffe Institute, which will use it as a central meeting area for lectures and colloquia. A committee appointed by Gross has recommended conversion of part of the Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center into a new student dance facility. Renovations to nearby Hilles Library, where plans are underway to consolidate the book and periodical collections on one floor, may also yield space for students (though for what purposes has not yet been decided).

These are all examples of converted spaces, Gross acknowledges, not construction of new facilities. "We have to find more practice rooms and rehearsal spaces," he says.

The urgency may well increase now that the question of how to further integrate the practice of the arts into the undergraduate curriculum is under review. Gross has asked one of the curricular working groups to consider whether, for example, students putting on a main-stage show at the Loeb might, by working with a faculty member in the English or history departments, earn course credit for the energy and effort they put into the production. "Could we imagine shorter, intense modules within the curriculum, less than a semester, perhaps a month, where a student could do an artistic performance or a research project with a faculty member for credit? If we do that," he says, "then we have to start looking at artistic space in the same way that we think of classroom space." In fact, as this issue went to press, FAS was expected to approve a new collaborative program in music with the New England Conservatory that would allow College students to earn a master's degree just one year after receiving their Harvard A.B.

Because Harvard already gives credit for some artistic pursuits—photography, chamber music, and life drawing, for example—the curricular review may ask whether the University ought to acknowledge that it is not only a research institution, but also trains people in the arts. "We are a university that covers all aspects of creative work and knowledge," says Gross. "Certainly, everyone in the University community is enriched by the level of artistic talent here in dance, in drama, in visual arts, in music—it is just incredible.

"Our students have been doing so much with only a very little bit of support, and I'd like to see if we can't get involved a little more," he continues, pointing out that Harvard has elaborate support for athletics (41 teams with coaches and assistant coaches) and "that works very well." Though it is not clear that students always want to be supervised, he says, there are "some wonderful teachers here," including orchestra conductor James Yannatos, the chorus's Jameson Marvin, and band director Thomas Everett; they represent one successful model that could be expanded to other areas of the arts (see "Three Maestros Talk Music," November-December 2002, page 68). The American Repertory Theatre, where students can work with professional actors, is another. Or the College "might bring in artists for five-year visiting periods."

However the curricular review turns out—balancing questions of arts practice versus study, and the academic versus the extracurricular in a way that makes academic, financial, and creative sense—it seems clear that short-term solutions will showcase student and administrative ingenuity. Long-term, Megan, student artists, and perhaps even a dean or two may be dreaming of a student performing arts center.