“I think that’s the key word,” she says. “[Arts First is] not a competition, it’s not juried, there are no auditions. I think it comes from people who really want to show their work and have the responsibility of taking their art public.”
Arts First has always tried to be an inclusive, democratic celebration. In 1992, John Lithgow ’67, inspired by the emphasis on the arts at former University President Neil L. Rudenstine’s inauguration in 1991, suggested that the University sponsor a formal event to celebrate the arts.
Lithgow, who was then on the Board of Overseers, met with Rudenstine and former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles and eventually arrived at the idea of a more organic, weekend-long celebration of student art at Harvard.
In May 1993, the first Arts First took place, featuring 40 performances. The year coincided with significant anniversaries of many arts organizations on campus: the Office for the Arts’ (OFA) 20th, the Carpenter Center’s 30th, the Glee Club’s 135th and Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra’s 185th.
Lithgow already thought Arts First could become an annual event, though he told The Crimson that “We only have dreams and fantasies for next year.”
Then, the administration approved Arts First on a year-to-year basis. The OFA’s Arts Spectrum newsletter in November 1994 says: “Green Light on Arts First. President Rudenstine has given the go-ahead for Arts First ’95!”
This enthusiasm for the project was typical of the community’s early reactions.
“We met with so much enthusiasm everywhere we went that one of our main challenges was limiting the scope,” Lithgow says.
Arts First originally had a different form, beginning Friday instead of Thursday and coinciding with the Undergraduate Council’s Yardfest, the first incarnation of Springfest. But that scheduling damaged both Springfest and Arts First, according to organizers; although they were distinct events with disparate purposes, they competed with each other in engaging the Harvard community.
Over time, though, Arts First has evolved into a major, all-encompassing campus event.
“It was always part of my dream for Arts First that it become an annual tradition, a springtime tradition at Harvard, and become an institution. People anticipate it, it becomes a very familiar household word, and Arts First becomes the signature for a really important Harvard event,” Lithgow says.
Now, the festival’s reach has expanded into Cambridge.
“Now it’s like ‘It’s Arts First again!’” Schorr says. “Outside the community, I think we get more coverage, and it’s become a huge family. If you go to Lowell Hall for the dance festival, there are dozens of strollers parked outside, and the little girls inside with their wands and their little fairy outfits, beside themselves.”
The traditional Arts First parade was designed in the first year to bring Cantabrigians into the festival.
“It takes almost as much effort as the whole rest of the festival,” she says, “but it really pulls people in and through the gates to the Yard in a way that just doesn’t happen at any other time of the year.”