Art Show Attempts To Build 'Networks'

David E. Stein

Matt Weinberg, a non-resident arts tutor in Adams House, helps sets up “Networks,” an art show held this week in the Adams House ArtSpace. The show is the product of a joint effort by House arts tutors.

The wood-paneled floors of the Adams House ArtSpace normally present a sharp contrast to the dazzling white walls of the converted squash courts.

But this week the floor is cluttered by a rainbow of canvases, sculptures and photographs.

By Saturday, arts tutors from Houses across campus had installed their exhibition—“Networks”—in the two-room ArtSpace.

Adams House Resident Tutor Jennifer Mergel ’98, who curated the show, says it attempts to introduce students to Harvard’s many arts tutors.

Budding student artists say that the limited resources and small size of the visual and environmental studies (VES) department means that the House tutor system is sometimes the only place they can turn for mentorship, networking and exhibition space.

But students say that the availability of these resources varies greatly from House to House.

Adams House—with galleries, studio space, a printing press and an artists’ “lounge” available to its residents—is regarded as the cream of the crop.

By contrast, some students in other Houses say their arts tutors are much less accessible and helpful than Mergel—and some Houses do not have arts tutors.

“Networks,” according to Mergel, is the first visible product of a recent initiative to bring the arts tutors together and improve the quality of the system. As recently as last fall, many of the tutors hadn’t met their counterparts in the other houses, she says.

“This exhibit is less about curating an original collection and more about bringing resources together,” Mergel says, gesturing towards a graphite panel and an acrylic painting waiting to be hung. “The graphites are Joan Mullen’s, an arts tutor in Mather, but that brown-striped acrylic canvas belongs to Jen Johnston, an arts tutor in Eliot. And that’s the point—to show side-by-side who’s available to assist the artists in the community.”

Filling the Gap

Like all the House system’s academic tutors, the House arts tutors are designated mentors—usually themselves part-time artists—who offer guidance and support to student artists. While their individual responsibilities depend on the physical resources available in their House, an arts tutor’s daily routine includes procuring student exhibition and studio spaces, critiquing student work and curating student shows.

Mergel says tutors can form more informal relationships with their students than VES professors or Office for the Arts officials who give out grant money.

“Arts tutors are…resources and advisors who are interested in the arts and students’ artistic endeavors,” Mergel says. “We’re just people who care about our students, who look forward to eating lunch with them, talking to them and making them a cup of hot chocolate.”

Matt Weinberg, a non-residential arts tutor in Adams House who helps set up installations in the ArtSpace and teaches a weekly figure drawing class in Adams, says the tutors serve an important role in finding space and materials for the students.

“Our job is to get students more involved in the arts, whether they’re interested in pursuing a professional career as artists or not,” he says. “By curating and installing student shows and bringing students into the studio, we develop a creative relationship with the artists in our Houses and we become colleagues.”

He says his duties are all the more important because of limited studio space and finite resources provided by the VES department, which has a wait-list for many of its courses and cannot provide opportunities to all prospective artists.

“It doesn’t seem right that four guys with bad voices can form an a capella group and get a show, but an artist at some Houses doesn’t have five feet to paint in,” he says. “In Adams, we’re lucky because we have studio and gallery space.”

Other tutors say they too have been affected by the dearth of existing studio space.

Winthrop Tutor Zoe P. McKiness spearheaded efforts to open a new studio space for student in her House. According to McKiness, the Winthrop studio— located in the basement of D-entry—is heavily utilized.

Dunster Arts Tutor Chris Abrams is similarly attempting to set up a studio space in Dunster House, Mergel says.

Appreciative Artists

While finding studio space, curating student shows and advising the arts community isn’t always easy, students say they are grateful for such efforts by House arts tutors.

Rachel A. Vessey ’04, a history and literature concentrator who heads the Harvard Photography Club, worked extensively with Mergel to organize photography classes and curate an exhibition of student work in the ArtSpace.

“I can’t imagine a more active arts tutor than [Mergel],” Vessey says.

Vessey says she thinks that the arts tutor system particularly helps non-VES concentrators explore their interests in visual arts.

“The arts tutors have made visual arts a much more visible presence on campus,” Vessey says. “As mentors who are readily available, they help make visual arts appeal to a broader audience.”

Tamara R. Reichberg ’04, a history and literature concentrator from Adams House, also says that her pursuit of photography has been helped by the tutors.

“The House arts system has shown me an unbelievable amount of support, enthusiasm, and sincerity.” she says. “As a student not concentrating in VES, it has helped encourage and fuel my love of photography.”

Julie S. Wecsler ’02-’03, a VES/East Asian Studies concentrator, says she particularly appreciates the weekly arts table meetings that Adams House hosts.

“The arts tutors provide us with the opportunity to casually talk to career artists of our generation, which is something that the VES department doesn’t often do,” Wecsler says.

Drawing new Blueprints

Although many members of the arts community agree that the arts tutor system is a positive component of artistic life at Harvard, some say there is still room for improvement.

Mergel says she believes that the greatest shortcoming has been the lack of communication among tutors of different Houses—which she says prompted her organization of “Networks.”

“I realized this fall that I didn’t even know who the other arts tutors outside of Adams,” she says. “It’s much more fun and efficient to produce art when you have a strong sense of community and an awareness of the available resources.”

Mergel says she has tried to address the disproportionate distribution of arts resources among the Houses.

“It’s great that Adams ArtsSpace is available for student use, but it’s not realistic that all the Houses will have identical resources,” she says. “Improving the lines of communication will facilitate the sharing of resources, which is much more realistic.”

In addition to organizing “Networks,” Mergel and other arts tutors have established the first-ever interhouse drawing class, which pools the resources of Leverett, Adams and Dunster House to provide free figure drawing instruction on Sundays.

And Mergel says that she hopes to set up a web server where the tutors can post announcements and answer students’ questions. She also plans to hold an arts tutor orientation at the beginning of each school year so that the tutors can meet their colleagues.

McKiness says that while the pooling of resources would be beneficial for artists, arts tutors also need to pay more attention to what students want.

Many students, like Mergel, say that the increased networking among the house tutors and the pooling of available resources will help alleviate the current state of the tutor system.

Wecsler says she believes that there needs to be more standardization of House resources and a stricter designation of tutors’ responsibilities.

Wecsler, who recently started an initiative to give students more opportunities to display their art in locations around campus, says she is still concerned about the lack of available student and exhibition space.

“There are many talented artists here, and I think finding space should become a higher priority for the arts tutors and student artists,” Wecsler says.

Other students, like VES concentrator Tsitsi I. Gora ’05, say that Houses should adopt a weekly arts discussion like that in Adams House and sponsor more hands-on workshops.

But Mergel says the system will not require a complete overhaul.

“I don’t think there has to be wide sweeping changes to the existing House arts system,” she says. “There’s so much energy and enthusiasm for visual arts here, and that’s what’s really important.”

—Staff writer Kimberly A. Kicenuik can be reached at