Through its Public Art Program, the Office for the Arts has supported the exploration of art and ideas in public spaces. Also, during ARTS FIRST, students experience the meaning of and possibilities for art in the public sphere by creating temporary works during the festival and participating in collaborative projects guided by professional artists. The Public Art Program also sponsors studio visits, lectures by visiting artists,v project site visits in the Boston area and periodically partners with other University units to commission new works by professional practitioners.
Starting in 1987, the Public Art Program spearheaded efforts to bring artists to campus to create temporary public artworks and engage in exchanges with the Harvard community. To commemorate the OFA’s move to its current home at 74 Mt. Auburn Street, the Program commissioned a permanent work in 1998 from Richard Fleischner for the façade of the OFA headquarters—in cooperation with the Harvard Planning Office, Harvard Square Business Association, and other Harvard and neighborhood constituents. Today, the Program focuses its resources on supporting student initiatives in public art, with guidance from artist Chris Abrams.
Selected Program Highlights
The Office for the Arts Public Art Program celebrated the 25th anniversary of Harvard's ARTS FIRST festival in 2017 with the presentation of Impulse, an interactive installation of light and sound co-created by Lateral Office, a Toronto-based experimental design practice founded by Lola Sheppard GSD '01 and Mason White GSD '01, and the lighting consultancy CS Design. Impulse animated Harvard Yard with a series of acoustic, illuminated seesaws. When activated by public use, the seesaws create an ever-changing composition of light and sound sequences that embody repetition and variation, formality and improvisation, stillness and flux. Complex and playful, Impulse actively and imaginatively engaged participants in the Harvard community and beyond. Watch the video here.
In the wake of the Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, Devon Guinn '17 and Delfina Martinez-Pandiani '17, in collaboration with Mikhaila Fogel '16, Ileana Riveron '17, and other student artists created an interactive artwork—guided by artist Ross Miller '77—to support their peers and engage the University in exploring a key theme underlying the report: Community. Component columns of the work were hosted by the Harvard residential Houses and student common spaces for two weeks, during which time students were invited to write and draw on the columns in response to specific questions about the challenges raised in the report and the work of creating a safe community. These components were presented as a single installation during the 2016 ARTS FIRST festival.
In 2012, the Public Art Program and ARTS FIRST festival presented Slow Dancing, David Michalek's video installation featuring larger-than-life, hyper-slow-motion video portraits of dancers and choreographers. The artist recorded each subject's movement, against a black backdrop, at 1,000 frames per second (compared to standard film's 30 frames per second) to produce a perception-altering performance freed from the constraints of gravity and context. Projected on to the facade of Widener Library, Slow Dancing transformed Harvard Yard, calling forth its symbolic significance as a place for contemplation.
In 2009, visiting artist Sanford Biggers created a temporary installation, Constellation, in Memorial Hall, complemented by a performance in collaboration with vocalist Imani Uzuri, members of Harvard’s a cappella group KeyChange, and instrumentalist Sumie Kaneko. The installation combined diverse cultural influences, from Buddhism to the African diaspora experience, exploring underlying relationships and suggesting that we transcend divisive social realities through our shared affinity for the symbolic and the spiritual. The tenor of this piece was extended by the performance, which offered an imaginative mash-up of Sufi poetry, Sun Ra, and black spirituals. A lecture by the artist and a panel discussion, in collaboration with the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and the Harvard Art Museums respectively, were presented in conjunction with the residency.
A groundbreaking partnership between the Office for the Arts and Department of System Biology, Harvard Medical School, brought artist Brian Knep to the University in 2005-2007 for a residency—a first for the Medical School. Knep created a temporary site-specific work in Memorial Hall, the landmark structure dedicated to those from the university who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Deep Wounds explored the lost relationships that result from conflict, and posed the complexity of reconciliation. The project won the “Best Time-Based Work, 2006” from the International Association of Art Critics/New England and an honorary mention in The Prix Ars Electronica International Competition for Cyber Arts. Knep’s use of algorithms describing biological models to create his computer-generated interactive artworks also provided a springboard for two roundtable discussions during his residency: “Sentient Architecture: Examining the Intersection of Interactive Technologies and Physical Space,” hosted by the Graduate School of Design, and “Growth, Form, and Interaction: Artists and Engineers Look to Biology,” hosted by the DSB. Deep Wounds was re-mounted at Memorial Hall in spring 2015 as part of the Harvard Civil War Project.
The Harvard Seers Project was a temporary interactive artwork created by Lee Mingwei for his residency in 2002-03 and realized in collaboration with the Harvard community. Within a simple, elegant enclosure created by Lee and installed in Memorial Hall, self-identified Harvard seers received individuals seeking guidance. Nine seers from the University community collaborated with the artist and audience members to explore the issues of intimacy, trust, and self-awareness inherent in this artwork. Lee recreated the Seers Project, including the pavilion constructed at Harvard, for presentation in the 2004 Whitney Biennial in New York, the museum’s signature survey of emerging and established American artists.
Catalogues published by the Public Art Program include: Five Views: One Landscape, A Journal of Experiments in Public Art, and, with the Harvard University Art Museums, Canopy: David Ward, A Work for Voice and Light in Harvard Yard.
Over the years, the Program also has worked with the City of Cambridge's Arts Council, including collaboration for its Waterworks Symposium, and the symposium and publication Conservation and Maintenance of Contemporary Public Art.
Selected Artists Who Have Participated in the Program
Ross Miller ‘77
Michael Van Valkenburgh