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Covering the Yard's Art

Still in sight, but out of mind?

Each and every day, crowds of tourists—cameras in hand—swarm a seated, stoic John Harvard. While the statue—the third most photographed in the United States—and its supposedly lucky golden toe act as the hub of tourist activity in Harvard Yard, other statues and paintings that adorn the Yard manage to attract little more than dust—and maybe a protective tarp or two.

But both students and Harvard staff agree that their neglect is due less to student apathy than to a dearth of readily available information about these works.

Tucked away near the sunken entrance to Pusey Library lies an Alexander Calder stabile, an abstract wrought-iron construction entitled “Onion” and completed in 1965. In another quiet corner of the Yard sits Henry Moore’s harmonious 1972 sculpture “Four Piece Reclining Figure.” This statue is especially inconspicuous during the winter months, when it usually rests under a shielding tarp.

Whether art in the Yard is hidden literally or figuratively, it is evident that many of Harvard’s own students seem to be oblivious to much of the artwork that dots it.

“I would say that students are not very aware at all,” says James A. McFadden ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, strolling towards Lamont. “I couldn’t tell you the name, sculptor, or meaning of any of them and I don’t think most people I know could either.”

However, McFadden does believe that there is one statue that’s almost universally known by students: the Chinese dragon stele between Widener Library and Boylston Hall, which was given by Chinese alumni to Harvard in 1936 in recognition of Harvard’s longstanding ties with the country.

In reference to its notoriety, McFadden says, “This is probably because it is phallic-looking and people always joke about how it looks like a big penis in the Yard.”

Phallic symbols aside, other students believe that general unawareness of art in the Yard stems from the tendency of certain statues such as John Harvard to attract an overwhelming amount of attention.

“Besides being overshadowed by good old ‘John Harvard,’ the lesser-known sculptures around Harvard Yard are all starkly designed and dark in color, making them less than obvious to the passer-by,” Logan J. Pritchard ’11 writes in an e-mail.

However, Nora K. Lessersohn ’09, the president of the Organization of Undergraduate Representatives of the Harvard University Art Museums (OUR HUAM), says that this ignorance about art around campus stems neither from apathy, nor from the arguably drab appearance of these sculptures. Instead, the problem is a lack of knowledge and resources.

“People at Harvard do care about art,” Lessersohn says. “The students are generally curious. They just don’t know about all of the resources we have on campus. If they are told, they will definitely go out and look for these things.”

Sandra Grindlay, Harvard University portrait curator, agrees. In reference to campus art that’s not housed in one of the three art museums on Quincy Street, Grindlay says, “There is a lack of awareness because there is lack of information and communication about its being there.”

“It’s also very scattered,” Grindlay says. “There’s not really a concentration of the works, and because of this people aren’t as aware of the sculptures.”

Moreover, the medium itself does not limit the bounds of Harvard Yard’s art collection. Murals painted by John Singer Sargent adorn the walls of Widener Library’s central stairs.

In an effort to commemorate Harvard students who fought and died in World War I, the University commissioned Sargent to create these two large paintings in the fall of 1920. Completed in 1922, these murals, coupled with Memorial Church across the New Yard, form the most elaborate World War I memorial in the Boston area.

To counter unawareness about Yard jewels such as these, efforts to increase student and public knowledge about the artwork around campus are underway.

Emilie Norris, curator of the university’s cultural properties, is developing a website for the sculptures and paintings that are not owned by the museums or libraries. But, as it is not one of the University’s top priorities, progress has been slow.

“We are trying to pull together information in a useful location so that students and visitors will find out much more about [the art],” Norris says, “but it does take a long time for things to get done around Harvard.”

“I think [the sculptures and paintings] add a great deal to the Yard,” she says. “Things that are so striking and so beautiful…. One hopes that people see them, that they’re curious, and that they would want to know more about them.”
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