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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Harvard College

An Arts Advance

10.20.14

Martin Puchner

Martin Puchner

Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

President Drew Faust and Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Michael D. Smith have announced a central-administration-funded initiative to develop an undergraduate concentration in theater, dance, and media. The proposal must undergo the formal review required for any new concentration, according to the announcement, but its proponents hope courses might begin next fall, with the concentration proper to begin at the end of 2015.

The concentration proposal, as reported, has been developed by Martin Puchner, Wien professor of drama and of English and comparative literature, who joined the faculty in 2010. The work has been under way for several years, reflecting lively undergraduate engagement with theater; the fact that Harvard is one of the few major colleges without such an academic program (see “The Future of Theater,” January-February 2012); and the recommendations issued in 2008 by the Task Force on the Arts—explicitly including an undergraduate concentration in the dramatic arts.

The task force was commissioned by Faust in 2007, but had the misfortune of reporting late in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, delaying implementation significantly. The recommendations on drama at pages 26-27 of the 2008 report included the following:

Harvard’s Dramatic Arts curriculum should require courses in theater history, literature, criticism and theory as well as practical courses in acting, directing, playwriting, and design. The concentration should integrate the scholarly perspective of the field with a serious practical training. Harvard should build on its strengths in dramatic literature in many languages and traditions, as well as the strengths of the play and screen writing courses within the English Department’s Creative Writing Program. Given our international perspectives on campus, there is an exciting possibility to stage plays in foreign languages using the original text, and the theater’s inherently interdisciplinary character will enable meaningful links to many other concentrations.

The most appropriate model, it seems to us, is likely to be History and Literature, that is, a free- standing concentration that draws upon the faculty and the curricular strengths of the relevant existing departments. Obviously, a great deal of thought and care will have to go into the design of the curriculum in order to ensure a proper balance of academic study and training in skills. The FAS will have to decide on the range of those skills, on the infrastructural resources required, and on the possible inclusion of a dance program within the larger concentration. We do not, as we have said, envision a course of study suitable for a conservatory; the concentration will be part of a liberal arts education. But, as with many disciplines in the language arts or in the sciences, the acquisition of certain advanced skills will be crucial to the successful immersion in Dramatic Arts.

The task force envisioned significant fundraising for and investments in College and graduate-level arts programs and facilities, including a master of fine arts degree. It was issued during a period when Yale invested campaign proceeds to bolster its formidable arts presence, and Princeton and Stanford used their own fund drives to construct entire new arts precincts—with museums, studios, and theaters—and augment their staff and academic initiatives.

But when the $6.5-billion Harvard Campaign launched publicly in September 2013, it was notably silent on arts-related investments. (The campaign website’s page on “advancing meaning, values, and creativity” recently listed as giving opportunities “state-of-the-art digital equipment,” arts lectureships, and funding the established undergraduate architecture-studies track.) More visible were the significant expansion envisioned of the faculty in and facilities for the burgeoning School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and significant investment in athletics facilities (renovation and expansion of the hockey rink, an addition to and reconfiguration of the Stadium, a new basketball arena, and a replacement for the sailing quarters).

Today’s announcement is silent on the arts task force’s facilities and other programmatic ambitions, but does represent a significant step forward in broadening Harvard’s performing-arts presence. The proposal is backed by $5 million in seed funding from Faust—perhaps itself in part the result of campaign fundraising: the $10-million gift for the arts from Maryellie Kulukundis Johnson ’57 and Rupert H. Johnson Jr. announced at Radcliffe Day last May provided $5 million for Faust to apply to diverse arts initiatives at her discretion. The news announcement also explicitly calls Faust’s support an “initial investment” which might “inspire further fundraising efforts” through the FAS capital campaign.

FAS professors are represented extensively on the Harvard University Committee on the Arts (HUCA), established in 2009 (a recommendation by the task force, and a way of keeping the flame alive during the dark days of recession and budget reductions). According to today’s announcement, the proposal builds on work HUCA has sustained in the intervening years. Puchner is a member, and Diana Sorensen, dean of arts and humanities for FAS, is co-chair. (She is also Rothenberg professor of Romance languages and literatures and of comparative literature.) Other committee members include Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts; Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater; and Jill Johnson, senior lecturer on music and director of dance—all key figures in making any concentration work. So presumably extensive faculty consultation on the proposed concentration preceded the decision to go forward now.

Assuming faculty approval, many details remain. How the performance-based teaching would be staffed, given over-enrollment of current courses, looms large. There are perhaps two suggestive clues. As the task force noted, the concentration could resemble history and literature: a field, without a department. And the FAS campaign literature on “Faculty and Our Scholarly Enterprise” (some $600 million within the overall $2.5-billion goal) lists a $15-million line item for “arts lectureships”—which could be filled much more quickly and economically than searches for ladder-track faculty members.

Even as the University campaign focuses further on science, in light of threats to federal funding of sponsored research, Harvard is having an arts moment. The fine-arts scholars are about to enjoy the fruits of the enormous investment in redoing the art museums (reopening November 16—an approaching event observed by Faust and others in a recent panel discussion). Now, a down payment has been made on joining a curricular performing-arts component to the vibrant extracurricular theater and dance scene on campus.

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