Art in the Yard

New display of student-created public art highlights questions of Harvard’s funding of visual arts

Harvard Yard had some new additions this weekend: a forest of tree stumps, a surreal playground and a giant hamster wheel, among others. In the first-ever Yard installation of student art, “‘Place and Site’: A Sculptural Exploration of Harvard Yard” consists of artwork created by students of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) under the guidance of VES professors Patrick Strzelec and Jackie Brookner.

Director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard (OFA) Jack Megan describes the venture’s roots in his desire “to see a visual arts presence as well as a performance presence” at Arts First Weekend.

Brian D. Goldstein ’04, one of the student artists, wrote in an e-mail, “It is an opportunity for the average person to get a better idea of what makes up ‘public art.’”

Public art is best defined by its situation in a public place and accessibility to those who might not otherwise seek it out. An ostensible goal of such art is to foster interaction with the viewer in a way that art hung on the wall of a museum cannot; such art engages only in isolation. Public art transforms public space into a venue for intellectual and artistic consideration, and as such aligns quite strongly with the aim of a liberal arts education.

Although this is the first time student work has appeared in the most public space at Harvard, the University has in the past sponsored temporary professional installations in the Yard. In 1994, for example, the OFA collaborated with the Harvard University Art Museums, the Graduate School of Design, and VES to bring British artist David Ward to Harvard.

Ward developed a temporary project with students titled “Canopy,” which consisted of two weeks of recorded readings of “Invisible Cities,” by Italo Calvino, broadcast through speakers hidden in the trees. According to Cathleen McCormick, director of programs at the OFA, the exhibition helped to create a sense of a commons for the Harvard and Cambridge communities.

Other works of art with less potential to irritate do exist on a permanent basis at Harvard. The best-known example is the Henry Moore sculpture, “Four Piece Reclining Figure,” which lounges permanently across from the entrance to Lamont Library. The work, not created to fit this specific site but intended by the artist to be displayed outdoors, was donated to the University in 1981. A less prominent but equally permanent work of public art is displayed on the façade of the main office of the OFA itself on Mt. Auburn St. The artist, Richard Fleischner, “was asked to create a work...to communicate that ‘arts happen here,’” relates McCormick.

However, these attempts appear somewhat inert and infrequent when viewed within a larger context. Harvard’s investment in public art is insufficient compared to the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT has a full-time public art curator, who has administered the Percent-for-Art Policy since 1968. The program, modeled on federal policy adopted during the Kennedy administration, allocates one percent of the cost of each new building to the provision of public art. The program has resulted in a rich and diverse group of works and has noticeably infused the MIT landscape with art.

MIT currently has six qualifying building projects, capped at $250,000 each, and two other $80,000 public art endeavors. “It’s been extremely successful and every university should consider implementing such a program,” Kathleen Goncharov, MIT’s public art curator, wrote in an e-mail.

While the expense of such a program is clearly immense, students believe that this should not stop Harvard from creating more space on campus for art with which the community can interact on a daily basis. Goldstein wrote in an e-mail, “It is necessary to provide places in which public art can be properly situated, and it is essential that these not be restricted areas because by the very nature of public art, context is a key component.” Meghan M. Brown ’05, another of the “Place and Site” artists, has a slightly different take. “There are so many spaces that Harvard could use to display art, but doesn’t,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I would love lots of temporary shows for students, in houses, department buildings, outside.” This could be the foundation for an expanded sense of community with constant engagement.

In addition to more backing for student-produced art, the University could expand its collection of permanent public art. “I like to see anything supported that pulls art out of the margins. I think public art is a great way of making something that might be a very high concept more accessible to the general population and putting art in a central place in the minds of people who might not otherwise ponder their relationship to it,” Goldstein wrote.

Brown added, “This project for Arts First is awesome, but it is sad that public student art is relegated to this one short week. It’s a great celebration, but it’s a little like Valentine’s Day. Shouldn’t art be displayed and appreciated every day of the year?”