Gary Duehr: Artist First

by Tom Lee

This year's ARTS FIRST festival has welcomed a new member to its planning team: Associate Project Manager Gary Duehr, whose longtime and tireless predecessor Matt Weinberg accepted a position at Harvard's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute in January. Duehr—a practicing artist who also serves as managing editor of the Office for the Arts' Arts Spectrum newsletter and has run workshops for Harvard students through the OFA Public Art program—has received grants and accolades for his photography, poetry (published in six volumes) and art exhibitions, including a commission from the MBTA for a permanent photo installation at North Station. He has written about the arts for several journals and currently manages the Bromfield Gallery in Boston's South End.

Harvard Arts Beat caught up with Duehr in the midst of final preparations for the festival, which takes place April 26-29 and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

This is the biggest ARTS FIRST festival yet, and you stepped into the job of Associate Project Manager mid-stream. How's the learning curve going?

I love the mixed metaphor of "mid-stream" and "curve"—somehow the perfect way to describe the crazy quilt of arts happenings in this year’s festival. And for my task, it’s as if I’m being asked to climb a hill while being buffeted by a current. Fun, yet a bit tricky! That said, I think the term "learning curve" is too gentle. If only there were time for a curve! More like a steep dive into an exciting unknown. Thankfully there is an amazing team here at the Office for the Arts of fellow aerialists, ready with a net. Another metaphor!

You've been connected to the arts scene at Harvard in other capacities over the years. Did you have any preconceptions about working in the arts at the university that have changed over time?

This year I have been exposed to a new—to me—phenomenon: the artistic cyborg student. This creature simultaneously inputs and outputs info at a dazzling speed: meeting—at a real table—over installation and design details while simultaneously tapping out emails, in virtual space, to make it all so. As if word and deed were squeezed down into electro-humanoid fingertips. I’m afraid if our talented, ambitious students tried to do any more, their heads would explode like fem-bots.

In addition to your management/administrative work, you're also a practicing artist. How do you balance those roles, and how do they inform each other?

Ah, balance. See above for aerialist theme. Somehow I was born with two brains, one for organizing and one for letting an inspiring mess happen on its own. ARTS FIRST does tap into both of these modes. I find myself wielding all my Zen powers to patiently watch the mad landscape of the festival unfold with a momentum of its own. There, the last metaphor of the day. Ta-da!

Finish this sentence: "On Monday, April 30—the day after ARTS FIRST is over—I'm going to…"

Sit right down and write myself a letter. Isn’t that from a song? Hmm, it just came to me. Perhaps all the imminent art in the air is infiltrating my nervous system. Onward!

[Caption: ARTS FIRST Associate Project Manager Gary Duehr.]