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Outlining a New Vision for the Arts

12.10.08


The arts must assume a more central role in the intellectual life of the campus, and this goal—and the expenditures necessary to bring it about—should remain a priority even in the current bleak economic climate, a task force on the arts at Harvard announced today. 

Toward the goal of putting the arts "on par with the study of the humanities and sciences," the final report from the task force (convened a year ago; read more here) recommends launching new degree programs; incorporating more opportunities for art creation into the undergraduate curriculum; and building new space for the arts, as well as improving existing spaces. These undertakings will require "a substantial fund-raising effort," the report notes. (Read the University news release here; the full report here; and a statement from President Drew Faust here.)

The arts at Harvard are “at once everywhere, and yet oddly marginalized and undervalued,” Cogan University Professor Stephen Greenblatt, the Shakespeare scholar who headed the task force, said in an interview that appeared in the Office for the Arts newsletter last fall:

There is an exceedingly vital and interesting arts scene, especially at the undergraduate level, where there is an unbelievable amount of activity...but...largely extracurricular. It was genially accepted but somehow not really important or different from other extracurriculars in the way the University viewed it.

The report offers three main recommendations:

• Greater emphasis on “art making” in the undergraduate curriculum. 

Just as the new general-education curriculum encourages science courses to incorporate lab work, the arts report encourages professors—especially those teaching courses in the “aesthetic and interpretive understanding” category—to incorporate art creation as well as analysis and theory.

    The task force also recommends the creation of a new undergraduate concentration in the dramatic arts. Such a concentration would, "like other humanities concentrations at Harvard, be part of a liberal-arts education, not conservatory training."

    "The creation of art—the integration of empathy, conceptual thinking, and design that art-making entails—is not a decorative add-on to an education," Greenblatt said in the news release accompanying the report. "One of the reasons that we value art is that it gets at certain aspects of the human experience that other forms of study and practice rarely approach. It is central to what education, in our time or indeed any time, is about."

    Undergraduates interested in art creation have a limited selection of courses, some of which require students to have experience and skill before enrolling. With this state of affairs, the report says, "we reinforce the message that a serious curricular engagement with the arts should be reserved for a tiny cohort, and we direct all others to the broad and playful sphere of the extracurricular."

    •  The addition of new graduate programs that culminate in a master of fine arts degree.

    Establishing programs in creative writing and theater should be possible within "a relatively short time" given these disciplines' relatively well-developed state; with regard to painting, sculpture, digital media, music, and filmmaking, the report says, "different time-frames are needed."

      The report recommends full funding of all graduate-student slots in these programs, so that Harvard does not force its graduates to embark on careers in the arts—risky and often unprofitable as they are—with a massive debt burden. (Concerns over graduates' financial straits aside, Greenblatt notes that without full funding, Harvard would have a hard time attracting top students, because many peer programs are funded.)

      •  Investing in the construction of "new innovative arts spaces" and upgrading existing spaces.

      The nascent Allston campus represents an opportunity "to bring into being precisely the architecturally exciting structures that will enable the innovations for which we are calling," the report says. It traces the outlines of a center for the arts in Allston that serves as a sort of nexus, bringing together artist and scholar, creator and viewer, rehearsal and performance, classroom and museum.

        Renovating existing spaces is not enough, the report declares: "Our existing physical structures and exhibition spaces reinforce principles in which few, if any, of us continue to believe." For example:

        The sharp division between "artworks" (housed in the Harvard Art Museum) and "ethnographic objects" (gathered in the Peabody Museum) is an artificial one. And it can run counter to the imperative for a more inclusive history of art, one to which, for example, the arts of Africa, Oceania, and Native America certainly belong.

         

        Three of Harvard's peer institutions have major arts initiatives under way: Yale is in the midst of a $3.5-billion capital campaign that includes $500 million for its already prominent schools of architecture, art, drama, and music. Stanford's capital campaign envisions a major expansion of creative-arts programs and faculty, and creation of a comprehensive "arts district" lining both sides of the main road into campus. And Princeton also has a major arts initiative in the works.

        Although these plans appear to be proceeding, universities are not immune from the effects of a recession, as recent events at Harvard indicate. In the last week, the University has announced a 22 percent decline in the endowment's overall value; the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has instituted a hiring freeze; and the University has issued new debt to generate cash to cover operations.

        In a statement accompanying the report, Faust outlined how the arts might become even more important under such worrisome conditions:

        Especially in difficult times, when ways of thinking and doing that we have taken for granted are challenged on a daily and weekly basis, we must encourage our students to ask fundamental questions and to solve problems in the inventive and collaborative ways exemplified by the making of art. Art produces experiences and objects that are carefully constructed and intricate reflections of the world. Empathy, imagination, and creativity are forms of knowledge that a university must foster in its students. Moreover, the arts have the power to bring us together as a community in the present, but also to provide powerful connections to those who have come before us and to those who will follow us. In times of uncertainty, the arts remind us of our humanity and provide the reassuring proof that we, along with the Grecian urn, have endured and will continue to do so. Now is the time to embrace, not retreat from, the arts.

        In an interview with Harvard Magazine today, Faust and Greenblatt noted that the plan will unfold over a period of years, and voiced hopes that the economic downturn would, in fact, be more short-lived than the plan's implementation.

        This process, Faust said, asks fundamental questions about the University: "What are our commitments and values as an institution? This transcends the historic moment in which we are located."

        As spending screeches to a halt across universities and the wider society, Greenblatt said, it is refreshing to be taking an optimistic view and talking about possibilities, even if the time frame is the long term. "It's a reminder that there are other things one might actually talk about and think about, aside from the doom and gloom of the current moment," he said.

        In the wake of the report's release, Faust said she is working with the schools that would be involved in creating the new graduate programs. The report recommends swift creation of a task force to begin that process; Faust declined to give a specific time frame for any initiative, but noted that the $100-million gift the University received last year from David Rockefeller '36, G '37, LL.D. '69, included money designated to support the arts.

        As for the arts facilities in Allston, Faust said the administration is examining the entire Allston plan "with great scrutiny...recognizing that the pace that seemed the logical one a year ago" may no longer be viable. Faust noted that the Allston plan always included space for the arts; a previous plan for an art museum was scuttled.

         

        Greenblatt's own rÉsumÉ shows a playful, experimental approach to the arts: his modern take on a lost Shakespeare play was performed at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) last year, and last year he taught an innovative course that took students on a multimedia "imaginary journey" around the world, following the path of a hypothetical slave ship and incorporating history, literature and drama (Shakespeare, naturally), art, music, and more. (For more on Greenblatt, see "The Mysterious Mr. Shakespeare," September-October 2004, page 56.)

        But even with his own ardent interest in the arts, Greenblatt said that he goes to far fewer arts events on campus than lectures. In the Office for the Arts interview, Greenblatt said he believes the University's attitude at least partially drives these choices: "...the institution sets a tone and sends signals, often subliminal...that the arts are the thing that you do if you have some spare time. Arts are the add-on at Harvard, but not one of those things that is understood to be a pillar."

        The report notes examples of this attitude:

        While ART performances may receive attention in the national press, they are generally unseen by the vast majority of students and faculty; and, though they offer a two-and-a-half-year graduate training program, the actual degree is conferred not by Harvard but by the Moscow Art Theatre School! The exhibitions in the Carpenter Center and elsewhere come and go without much notice on campus—even while distinguished art journals sing their praises. ...The vitality of artistic activity on campus is rendered nearly invisible to the Harvard and local community by the lack of a centralized listing of readings, performances, screenings, and exhibitions. It is a typical and frequent experience for anyone vitally interested in the arts here to learn a day or a week after the event that something remarkable has occurred and is now over.

        The very presence of art on campus (or rather, its lack) is itself a telling sign, the report says:

        Spaces that might feature the works of Harvard artists or display objects from the rich collections—the Holyoke passageway, for example, or common rooms in the residential Houses—are almost never used to do so. Workspaces are blank while the walls of official buildings are adorned—at best—with ancestral portraits (whose sitters, as it happens, resemble the ancestors of only a fraction of our current students and faculty). There are a few notable works of public art—the Henry Moore sculpture in front of the Lamont Library, the massive Chinese stele near Widener. But these were erected long ago, for ours is not a seriously curated campus: one would be astonished to step into a Harvard building and see an exciting installation or a major work by a contemporary artist.

        The report finds a fall-off in art acquisition shameful, as well:

        With the notable exceptions of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and the photography collection, the Harvard Art Museum effectively stopped collecting art from the 1960s onward, a decision as problematical for the University's teaching mission as would have been a comparable decision on the part of the library to stop collecting poetry and fiction after, say, the death of Wallace Stevens and Gabriela Mistral.

        Thus, beyond its three main goals, the report incorporates a number of subsidiary recommendations, from the simple—creating a centralized event listing service—to the more complicated—a renewed agenda for art acquisition. It also advocates another complex undertaking: reviewing hiring and tenure guidelines to increase flexibility and thereby enable the hiring of more professors of the practice, while maintaining high standards.

        The report also notes things Harvard does well, and progress thus far: McKay professor of the practice of biomedical engineering David Edwards teaches a course on idea translation that bridges art and science; a five-year program allows undergraduates to combine a bachelor's degree at Harvard with training in music at the New England Conservatory; a new Ph.D. program (a collaboration between the departments of anthropology and visual and environmental studies) explores the intersection of ethnography and filmmaking; and another new Ph.D. program, in film studies, was recently approved.  

        For its assessment of the arts at Harvard—both strengths and weaknesses—Faust called the report itself "an extraordinarily important beginning" and "a great gift to this institution": “This initial framing of ourselves and our educational purposes is one of the key contributions of this report—and that has happened, as of today."