Artists put the art in ARTS FIRST. Jason Luke '94 makes their performances work as a festival.
By Olivia Munk '16
When you attend an arts event, you focus on the art. When Jason Luke ’94 attends an arts festival, he sees the art but he also sees the structures and operations. As associate director of custodial services at Harvard, Luke is an integral member of the operations team for ARTS FIRST, the college's annual celebration of the arts taking place April 28-May 1. During the nine-month planning process, he contributes invaluable support to optimize performance success and audience experience, and he is keenly attentive to the campus roles of historical site, tourist attraction, residential community and festival destination, all at once. Each year, festival organizers turn to Luke for expertise regarding logistics, whether placement of signage around the Yard or coordination of more than a hundred performances throughout the Yard and in the tent on the Science Center Plaza. I spoke to Luke, who has worked on the festival for nearly two decades, about the growth over the years, logistics for an event of this scale and tips for students who may go into operational producing.
What goes into planning the logistics of ARTS FIRST?
The first operations meetings are in September. There are a lot of conceptual elements to figure out first, and then that trickles into the operational side, which is my piece of it. So it takes a while for it to sort itself out programmatically, and then it comes my way a few months later.
What goes into the operations planning in the Yard?
There are a lot of logistics, particularly on the Plaza, which has become a focal point in the last four or five years since it was renovated. Production, logistics, the actual physical layout itself, venue management, other kinds of set-up needs and the timing over several days of the festival are all a part of that.
How have you seen ARTS FIRST change over the years?
A big turning point was the use of the Plaza. We used that site for a piece of the festival [prior to its renovation] but only for a small event or a lunch. A lot of the other performances, such as lectures, were in Sanders Theatre and other performance venues around campus. You couldn’t get nearly the same crowd, and it didn’t feel like an outdoor festival, where you could walk in and out. It was more localized to performance venues.
What is the impact of larger crowds?
It’s definitely more involved, but also a lot better because it’s more centralized and bigger. It has become more of a festival rather than disparate events that were all connected but happening at various venues. The Plaza is also close to the Yard, so it adds an expanded outdoor part.
How do the logistics of ARTS FIRST compare to other large-scale events, such as commencement?
Commencement is definitely bigger and has a different scope from ARTS FIRST. It’s the single biggest event of the year for Harvard. We also organize reunions and events at each of the schools and the houses, so it’s really like a 10-day spread, including senior week. It’s a lot more logistics, planning and details. For ARTS FIRST, I can be there for everything and be there directly to manage. For commencement, there are too many things happening at once for me to be everywhere.
Are you involved in other arts programming during the year?
There are a lot of different events, such as Yardfest and development events. It depends on what happens each particular year. This year, there’s a piece on the Plaza that is projected from the roof of the Science Center. And there’s public art, such as last year’s John Harvard projections and “Slow Dancing” on the steps of Widener a few years ago.
Have you seen Yard operations become more technologically advanced in the past few years?
Definitely, we’ve seen an evolution over the last 15-20 years. For reunions, for example, the needs and demands have changed. The technical expectations are much greater. That leads into other components, such as a need for temporary power. And it opens up opportunities for creative pursuits, as well.
What advice do you have for people who want to become involved in the logistical side of the arts?
I started working here on the operations side and fell into the events doing commencement, which grew into more events. There are a lot of ways to get into planning, such as through interning or arts administration. Certainly, the Office of Student Life is a resource. Even through student organizations – the 600 that exist at Harvard – you can gain experience in events planning. It’s not something I ever thought I would end up doing. I studied English and American literature at Harvard, and thought I would probably teach. But things took a turn, and here I am working the operational side at Harvard, including ARTS FIRST, which I really enjoy working on, especially with the team. It’s a lot of fun to be involved with it.
ARTS FIRST takes place April 28-May 1 in and around Harvard Yard. Many events are free, and all are open to the public. For a schedule of programming, click here.