The annual festival is where many students and community members first meet the arts at Harvard. Here, a senior reflects on her final performance during the all-arts weekend. 

By Anita Lo '16

As I walked through the yard, viola under my arm and strains of a capella floating by, I heard a father asking his daughter: “Well, do you want to listen to this music, or do you want to find out where that music’s coming from?”

Make Art station: The Harvard University Drummers (THUD)
The girl pointed in the direction of the rhythmic rumbles, and we arrived at the same time to see the Harvard Undergraduate Drummers and some smaller contemporaries gathered around a circle of upturned orange buckets. 

The annual ARTS FIRST festival earlier this month attracted thousands of arts lovers and families from around the city and lured students out of study carrels. At the Make Art Stations on the Science Center Plaza, strollers surrounded tables covered in wet clay, rolling pins and scrapers. An enthusiastic member of Harvard’s Hyperion Shakespeare Company read lines from – Was it Romeo and Juliet? – and flung her arms wide; the curly-haired child in the scene with her clutched the script tightly to keep it from flying away in the wind.

ARTS FIRST is a festival of many firsts, and the performance fair is not the least of them. For some musicians, it’s an opportunity to debut a piece for the Harvard community and greater Cambridge and Boston communities, with novel instrumentations and experimental scores. For toddlers engulfed in purple “make art” t-shirts, running around the giant white tent, it’s likely their first time watching Bhangra or ballroom. Indeed, some Harvard economics professors have been known to try their hand at conducting orchestras for the first time as part of the annual celebration of the arts.

DanceFest 2016
DanceFest 2016
For many graduating seniors, the ARTS FIRST Performance Fair is their last arts event as a Harvard undergrad. Because the fair is at the end of the semester, many groups whether a cappella or Western classical will take a 20-minute slot to celebrate the end of the year with a “best of” sampling. The performance fair for me consisted of a series of “lasts” in Paine Hall, the Harvard Arts Museum and even in my own residential college.

Between my first and second years of college, the ARTS FIRST t-shirt evolved from a simple festival logo on the front to one with the logo on the sleeve and the command to “make art” emblazoned on the front. I’d seen the phrase around campus a few times, on tote bags and on the occasional sign, but the t-shirt’s proliferation in my sophomore year came at a time when I was reconsidering the necessity of playing viola and writing. The viola, a spare one lent to me because of a seemingly perpetual shortage of viola players, rebelled against me. The chinrest came loose; the stick of the bow warped; the C-string began uncoiling along the fingerboard. And: Writing creatively seemed frivolous when term papers loomed.

ARTS FIRST 2016: Chamber music in the Harvard Art Museums Calderwood Courtyard
Chamber music in the Harvard Art Museums Calderwood Courtyard
The call to “make art” is sometimes vague: What art? Why me? And what if I have made art, but no one is there to see it? And yet. ARTS FIRST, capping off every year, brought attentive audiences; the imperative to “make art” makes more sense when fellow artists you otherwise couldn’t have known about gather to see each other follow this directive.

Walking back from Sanders Theatre, having just played the last college concert of my life, I wanted to be nostalgic and maybe sentimental. It would’ve been a bit of a relief to sigh, watch my arts career flash before my eyes and draw the curtains. Of course, surrounded by colorful curlicue garlands strung between tents under which siblings squabbled over artistic plagiarism (“If I’m making a turtle, you can’t make a turtle too!”), it was difficult to mourn much of anything. More than that, I think the constant imperative to “make art” took the place of the frustration I would have otherwise felt. Art, in its public and unapologetic display, validates my impulse to make it, and ensures that firsts are not lasts.