Arts Last?

If it weren’t for the bare bookshelves, standard-issue office furniture and a collection of tools used by some of modern
By J. hale Russell

If it weren’t for the bare bookshelves, standard-issue office furniture and a collection of tools used by some of modern art’s most famous painters, you might mistake noted conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro’s office on the top floor of the Fogg Art Museum for a closet. When she was hired to start Harvard’s Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art in December 2000, she inherited the University’s legacy as the inventor of art conservation a century ago, and was charged with making Harvard a world leader in modern art studies. Yet her claustrophobic office—a room the size of a Dilbert cubicle, enclosed by blank white walls—is just about the only space her center has.

Mancusi-Ungaro was promised a modern art museum, but University President Lawrence H. Summers and his planners last summer gave up the fight for that building, bowing to community opposition. And renovations to the dilapidated Fogg—which lacks climate-control systems to preserve art and the laboratory space to restore it—await funding from central administration. Mancusi-Ungaro fears that without a substantial commitment from Mass. Hall, Harvard may not have the resources to accept the donations of influential work that will maintain its position atop the university museum pecking order.

“In a way, [Harvard’s art museums], founded as a beacon of the exchange of ideas about art [are] now relegated to something that is not nearly as active as it should be,” Mancusi-Ungaro says. “That threatens the arts here.”

Unlike Yale, Cornell, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard has no independent graduate school of the arts, nor any plans to fund graduate-level work in the practice of art. And ever since spring 2001, when the chair of the Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) department was dismissed and Summers was named president, the University’s commitment to the arts has come under fire. Critics argue that Harvard’s archaic reluctance to recognize and incorporate the arts into its academic mission may discourage talented prospective students from choosing Harvard and threaten its prestige.

The most public implication came from presidential runner-up Lee C. Bollinger, who was chosen to lead Columbia after being passed over by the Harvard Corporation. Presiding over the top university in the country’s cultural capital, Bollinger has staked that university’s future—and his legacy—on Columbia’s prioritization and integration of the arts into its curriculum. He plans to construct a new building for the graduate school of the arts, appoint new art professors and increase collaboration with local cultural institutions.

“I can’t imagine a great university without a school of the arts,” Bollinger told New York Times writer and Harvard Board of Overseers Member John Rockwell ’62 in a March 20 story on Bollinger’s plans. Rockwell, who serves as the Overseers’ liaison to Harvard’s Office for the Arts (OFA), took care to point out in the piece that Bollinger was “effectively depriving Harvard, which lacks such a school, of great-university status.”

There’s no question that among candidates for Harvard’s presidency, the runner-up as far as the arts were concerned was Summers himself. An economist who rarely expressed the cultural interests or artistic commitment of his two predecessors, Derek C. Bok and Neil L. Rudenstine, Summers recalls just three student artistic performances he’s attended this year, in contrast to his regular attendance at most home football games. Summers himself says his understanding of the humanities does not compare to his familiarity with social science. If he pursues a policy of benign neglect—or delegated responsibility, as when Summers directed the art museums to report to University Provost Steven E. Hyman—it might even streamline bureaucracy for the arts. Harvard’s artists have always enjoyed relative freedom from administrative control; even under the more culturally-savvy presidencies of art-lovers Rudenstine and Bok, who started the Office for the Arts (OFA), student art remained student-run. By any quantitative measure, student arts groups have thrived: at least 53 are currently registered with the College.

But Summers isn’t known for a hands-off management strategy. As two new deans restructure the College, most senior arts administrators and several College officials say they’re anxious about administrative support for the arts under a president whose artistic commitment is a wildcard. The performing and creative arts face a severe space crunch and need more funding just as a budget squeeze across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) toughens competition for resources. But restructuring may weaken arts administrators’ influence if the OFA moves down the reporting hierarchy, which College officials say is a strong possibility, and the merger of the positions responsible for undergraduate education and student life will eliminate one of the most outspoken advocates for extracurricular arts activity. Meanwhile, curricular review—stirred in part by Summers’ stated desire to “assure that the academic experience is at the center of the college experience”—could create new artistic opportunities in the classroom, but College administrators fear this might diminish opportunities for more amateur participation in the arts. And given the University’s longstanding discomfort with the role of the arts in an academic curriculum, many in the arts community worry that Summers will not prioritize its interests.


The first recorded mention of a Harvard student artist was probably in 1652, when a few Harvard boys spent their Sunday afternoon performing a play. Their shenanigans were rewarded with disciplinary action—they had shamelessly been “impersonating the devil on a Sunday.” It’s a story that former OFA Director Myra Mayman finds particularly apt. “The first mention I could find of anything having to do with the arts…was bad behavior that could be punished,” she says. “Anything after that is doing well.”

Harvard’s peculiar, decentralized model for the practice of art is largely a byproduct of history. The founders of Harvard were religious men without much reverence for art. While some institutions carefully planned out programs and schools of the arts, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 says that at Harvard, “very little that has to do with the organization of the arts was ever rationally designed.” The result of a mentality that relegated arts to a nice weekend activity for gentlemen, Harvard still leaves artistic endeavors primarily to the individual and the extracurricular arena.

It’s the model of British and German universities, but not particularly common in America. “Harvard is probably one of the last hold-outs in its regard,” says Robert Brustein, former executive director and founder of the American Repertory Theater (ART), Cambridge’s only professional acting troupe which shares the Loeb Drama Center with undergraduates. “I can only guess that it was a kind of imitation of Oxford or Cambridge.” This structure—or lack thereof—has helped the arts gain popularity at Harvard. The OFA, which supports student artists and sponsors cultural programming, estimates that half of the undergraduate population is actively involved in the performing or creative arts. An extremely talented top end shares the stage with those who participate more informally.

The OFA was started under Bok to try to make some sense out of the jumble. “The objective ought to be to provide an undergraduate experience in which as many undergraduates as possible could be encouraged to actively be involved in the arts,” Bok says of the initial impetus for an organization to advise extracurricular activity. Porter Professor of Fine Arts Emeritus James S. Ackerman, who chaired the 1970s committee that suggested establishing the OFA, characterizes Bok’s model as one which rewarded broad-based involvement in the arts. “President Bok thought of the arts as an analogy to football, a good thing for young people to do,” he says. “It was not intended to catch their interest very deeply but rather to make them patrons of the arts when they became CEOs.”

Perhaps the greatest historical resistance has come from the Faculty, who have generally opposed giving curricular credit for the arts, favoring theory over practice in the few instances where credit is granted. “It’s not something the faculty have wanted to embrace, the practice of the arts,” Mayman of the OFA says. In part, it’s due to longstanding fears of academics who generally oppose granting tenure—which might imply equal respect or importance—to artists. “I think the Faculty’s opposition is characteristic of academic thinking everywhere else,” says Ackerman. “There’s a protectiveness on the part of academics of their way of looking at things.”

Rob Orchard, who currently directs the ART, Cambridge’s only professional acting troupe which shares the Loeb Drama Center with undergraduates, remembers the first time the ART proposed adding some dramatic arts courses for undergraduates. It was at a Faculty meeting in the early 1980s, and Orchard recalls one currently retired professor who stood up and said: “We don’t train butchers, so why should we be training artists?”

But artists are quick to dispute the notion that the arts aren’t an intellectual process. Several people suggested the arts are in a place similar to where laboratory sciences were a century ago. In the 19th century, scientific research would never have received academic credit; only the study of the history of science was material for the classroom. Some study of the practice arts emerged at the recommendation of the 1955 Brown Report, a still-cited product of a committee on the visual arts at Harvard chaired by John Nicholas Brown. The Brown report attempted to debunk what it called “the myth of the inspired idiot [which] denies any serious intellectual component in artistic creation.” It was the suggestions of the Brown Report—and the convenient donation of money to build the Carpenter Center for the Visual Art—that created the Visual and Environmental Studies Department (VES).

Still, the report, while calling the visual arts “an integral part of the humanities” and of life, held back in its rhetoric: “We do not propose to inject the art school into the academic life, but rather to give the experience of art its rightful place in liberal education…It is still doubtful if a student at Harvard can find space or time to apply himself seriously to creative work in the visual arts.”


This ambivalence has been reflected in the last few decades of art at Harvard. While former VES department chair Ellen Phelan was hired to reinvigorate Harvard’s academic visual arts program, former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles removed her from the chair after complaints arose that the work environment in the department did not meet Harvard’s professional standards. Knowles replaced Phelan, a distinguished painter whose connections to the New York art world lured many top practicing artists to Harvard’s Carpenter Center, with Kenan Professor of English Marjorie Garber, a Shakespeare scholar with no formal background in the visual arts. The case was seen both by VES faculty and outsiders as a disappointing reflection of how far Harvard was willing to stretch its resources, culture and traditions to accomodate the arts within its curriculum.

While the Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center provides ample facilities for Harvard’s VES concentrators, the rest of Harvard’s arts community has felt a very physical squeeze for quite some time—according to future Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71, the performing arts are one of FAS’s most cramped divisions. And where the Phelan experiment in VES was at least an attempt to prioritize the practice of art, most other divisions have struggled even to run in place. FAS’s lease on the Rieman Center for Performing Arts, Harvard’s primary dance rehearsal and performance space, expires in June 2005 when the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study will convert it to a meeting space. Although OFA dance program director Elizabeth W. Bergmann says Summers promised undergraduate dancers in his office hours that there will be no gap between the loss of Rieman and the availability of a new building, he has left it up to FAS to determine where the space will come from. College administrators like Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth ’71 insist space will be found, but say they have not identified any workable candidates for conversion or construction of such a technically complicated building on this side of the river.

While the spotlight has fallen on Rieman in the past year, all the performing arts have lost space since the 1970’s. The mainstage of Harvard’s Loeb Drama Center, the largest and most technically sophisticated theater space in Cambridge, is available to students just six weeks a semester. Originally built as a full-time undergraduate theater and staffed by six, former President Bok decided undergraduates would benefit from mentorship opportunities if they shared the building with the American Repertory Theater in 1980. However, Gross, Lewis and Bok all say the relationship between undergraduates and the professional acting troupe is less than ideal, and the two compete for limited space. Lewis estimates in a letter to Allston planner Kathy Spiegleman that 80 to 90 percent of the building’s square footage is not available for undergraduate use. And the decrepit Hasty Pudding Theater building, purchased by the College in 2000, has awaited renovations for several years now—each year marked by a delay with a different excuse and currently stalled on fundraising.

Chronic understaffing exacerbates the resource problem. OFA Director of Programs Cathy McCormick calls understaffing and lack of space “burning emergency-level issues.” Just two employees are responsible for the technical needs of every Harvard theater space outside the Loeb, taking care of safety and training for hundreds of students a semester. “We have kept kids from getting injured literally by running from space to space,” McCormick says. But she says FAS shot down the OFA’s request to add a new technical position.

Funding for undergraduate arts is already subpar, McCormick says, even without the current fiscal austerity. The OFA’s unrestricted funding from FAS has grown at the constant FAS-wide rate of 2 percent per year. But after Harvard reclassified hundreds of employees last year to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act, requiring them to fill out timesheets and paying them overtime, the OFA has borne a disproportionate load, as its employees often work odd hours to maintain theater spaces and box offices. McCormick and Memorial Hall Complex Director Eric Engel say the changes cost the OFA and Memorial Hall Complex $68,000 in one time expenses and $58,000 per year thereafter. No additional FAS funding was available to cover these costs. “It’s all but eliminated our ability to make discretionary purchases,” Engel says.

But former President of the Board of Overseers Richard E. Oldenburg ’54 says the development office discourages fundraising in the arts, where less money is generally directed anyway. “There’s always such a battle for donations in these areas,” he says. “It’s up to the development department to allow us [to fundraise] which they’re often not that eager to do.”

Yet while funding and space are lagging for the arts, the Corporation approved a new $100 million science building last month, undermining the myth that the arts come first even immediately before Arts First weekend itself. “There’s no question that arts education is not a priority,” says Engel. “All you have to do is look at the buildings being built.”

And these same artists and administrators say that if Mass. Hall doesn’t commit to constructing new spaces, Harvard will fall even further behind in the arts. Many smaller colleges have better facilities, they say. “Some schools build these fabulous performing arts spaces,” Bergmann says. “We’re the best in everything else, why aren’t we the best in the arts?”

Large-scale construction takes support from central administration, and when that support wanes it becomes impossible for the arts to expand. According to one senior museum official, Summers chose to abandon the controversial proposal for the modern art museum to focus on winning other concessions from Cambridge residents, although Senior Director of Community Relations Mary Power said the building had a negligible chance of actually gaining the city’s approval. Yet former art museums director James Cuno, who had collaborated extensively with Rudenstine in planning the museum, announced last summer he would leave Harvard to take over Courtauld Institute of Art in London—just weeks before the plan was officially scrapped.


If the ears and sympathies of high-level administrators are key to the arts’ success at Harvard, the restructuring of the College Dean’s office can only make matters worse. Gross says he will probably be overwhelmed by holding direct responsibility over 20-plus underlings, as might happen under the current plan to merge the offices of undergraduate education and the College. While he says he will “have to maintain a direct line” by meeting with the heads of each organization, two College administrators say a layer of bureaucracy will likely sit between them. Though a decision will not come for weeks, several College administrators confirm that the planning committee is seriously contemplating a model where the OFA would report to an associate dean, most likely Illingworth. Illingworth would not speculate on the final direction of the restructuring.

If the OFA does eventually report to an associate dean, it would be its third demotion on the University food chain overall and second in two years. It initially reported directly to the president until it moved to FAS in keeping with the OFA’s responsibility for undergraduate programming. When founding director Mayman departed two years ago, the OFA again moved down the hierarchy to report to Lewis. And while arts administrators agree that the OFA has a strong working relationship with Illingworth, they stress the importance of having the ear of senior level administrators who allocate resources. “The higher the reporting relationship, the stronger the message,” the OFA’s Engel says. “I think there would be a gross inequity in perception and in actuality for that reporting relationship to be any lower than it is.” By contrast, the Department of Athletics continues to report directly to the dean of FAS.

Summers has held a few breakfasts and dinner parties for arts administrators and faculty, and those present at the meetings say he showed interest and asked intelligent questions. But by contrast to those who sat at his Mass. Hall desk before—Bok, who hosted yearly concerts where student musicans played for faculty, and Rudenstine, who had always professed a love of culture and whose wife was an internationally renowned art collector—Summers comes with little background knowledge. “Summers is totally unconcerned,” Ackerman says of Summers’ commitment to the arts. “It’s totally out of his orbit.”

The leaders of Harvard’s arts community don’t say that they believe Summers actively opposes them, but they agree that catching his attention will be difficult, particularly if both the museums and the OFA lose influence in the University’s bureaucracy. OFA administrators say they have tried to catch his interest by co-sponsoring events like the Harlem Boys’ Choir visit in February and organizing a performance for his installation, which Summers has asked the OFA to turn into an annual event. “I don’t mean this cynically,” Rockwell says, but “some of the things he’s done are photo ops.”


Rudenstine and Bok never chose to focus on the role of arts in the curriculum, and pushed very little for additional academic credit for performing arts. Bok says he never thought academic performance courses would make it past Faculty approval. “Harvard’s pretty strict about what it means to give credit,” Bok says. “It was clear that [the Faculty] wasn’t going to be easy on providing credit.”

A campus that lacks strong central programming in the arts has a challenge in balancing the needs of different artist constituencies. Some argue that Harvard’s resistence to preprofessionalism in the arts requires it to provide opportunities for the widest range of people possible—as exemplified by an extracurricular climate where anyone can start an a cappella group. On the other hand, the small but noticeable group of extremely talented artists demands more top-end professors, facilities and curricular opportunities—at the risk of otherwise losing these students, many of whom prefer the liberal arts mindset to a conservatory school but still need training.

Some arts administrators say they don’t believe that excellence and broad range are mutually exclusive, though they agree that shoestring budgets exacerbate the difficulty of making every student happy. Satisfying the music training needs of undergraduates, according to Robinson Professor of Music Robert D. Levin, would require a minimum commitment of “two medium-to-large-size departments,” equipment and buildings.

Arts administrators say the upcoming curricular review provides an opportunity to reconsider the role of arts in a university’s curriculum. They talk of “integration,” finding ways to incorporate the arts into other classroom settings, thereby giving many more students a taste of culture. But some—like Bergmann—worry that out of the four committees Gross has set up, there’s no obvious place to discuss the arts. The committees include no artists other than Arnheim Lecturer on Filmmaking Robb Moss.

While almost all arts administrators say students deserve academic training for the practice of art and want to see more opportunities for credit courses, some say they worry that if already-limited resources are devoted to classroom training, those with less serious interests in the arts will be left out. “I think that’s a real danger,” Mayman says. “At other schools…when you do have a formal department, it segments out a special group.” She worries about “making things more structured and formal and decreasing involvement.”

Students with interest in visual arts often complain about the limited enrollments in VES courses, which give preference to concentrators and sometimes leave non-concentrators without opportunity to practice or to use the facilities of the Carpenter Center. Garber says this simply acknowledges the “real world situation” of limited resources. Gross says the Faculty tries not to cap courses on “principle” but says he recognizes the challenge a limited number of artist faculty members would face in providing opportunities to a wide range of students.

Arts administrators say they hope for the best—an expansion of curricular opportunities for Harvard’s best artists without a reduction in extracurricular activity. They don’t want to see a competition between excellence and diversity and don’t think an administration could completely suppress extracurricular performance. But it’s certainly plausible that if additional space is not acquired, undergraduates with a meaningful but not defining interest in the arts could be crowded out.


If Summers does not commit sufficient University resources and attention to the arts, he will be taking a grave risk of which he may not be aware. Harvard, arts activists say, has a unique role to play in shaping national culture, and much of its prestige is buoyed by its dominant position in many artistic areas—the art museums and the ART are two of the most respected institutions in their fields internationally. According to ART Executive Director Orchard, “the kind of ambivalence that comes out of Harvard” is responsible for the national attitude towards the arts. “Its position vis a vis the arts is going to be scrutinized…In the educational world, people look at Harvard,” he says. “I don’t think it’s the best example.”

Veronique E. Hyland, Kristi L. Jobson and Lauren A.E. Schuker contributed to the reporting of this story.