Cellist Camden Archambeau ’23 performs Sonata for Solo Cello by Zoltán Kodály in Adolphus Busch Hall.

Cellist Camden Archambeau ’23 performs Sonata for Solo Cello by Zoltán Kodály in Adolphus Busch Hall.

Credit: Office for the Arts at Harvard

Arts & Culture

Arts First and all over

5 min read

Festival organizers say online format expands this year’s offerings and audience

Danielle Davis ’21 has helped produce the annual Arts First festival for three years, and loved seeing campus explode with art and performance during the three-day spring extravaganza.

So when the Office for the Arts announced that the festival would be entirely virtual in 2021, she saw only the possibility for an even greater — and more inclusive — celebration.

“This is the first time that the experience has been truly global,” said the engineering sciences concentrator and cellist from Long Island.

Coordinated by Marin Orlosky ’07-’08, the 11-day gala kicks off Monday, with programming featuring some of Harvard’s best visual arts, music, dance, and performance. Viewers can tune in for nightly performance fairs hosted live by undergraduate students, and featuring prerecorded videos representing a range of art disciplines.

More than 100 students, faculty, alumni, and affiliates submitted videos and visual art pieces from around the world, including a movement piece staged on formerly Indigenous-held land in Mexico and a violin piece performed in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Fourteen students also submitted work staged in different spaces around Harvard, including the Smith Campus Center, Widener Library, and the Science Center. The Ed Portal created a digital exhibition with interactive elements projected on its building façade in Allston, and the Harvard Art Museums prepared an online exhibition connected to the flora and fauna of the Arnold Arboretum.

“Arts First always feels like a celebration to me — a celebration of creativity for sure, but also of who we are as a community. We have such a rich and truly diverse student body and the range of artistic presentations reflects that diversity,” said Jack Megan, director of the OFA. “Arts First sends the message that everyone belongs.”

The Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players perform” When the Night Wind Howls” from Ruddigore; or “The Witch’s Curse.” The company’s newest show “Cox and Box”; or, the “Long-Lost Brothers” runs April 29-May 8.

Office for the Arts at Harvard

Theater company in picture frames.

Normally, Davis’ role includes assisting with setup and performer logistics in venues across campus. This year, she and her fellow student producers reviewed video performances and helped coordinate the mix of live and prerecorded content.

“I only get to see a segment of all the amazing things happening at the festival when I produce in person, and now I have the chance to peek in at all the things that I’ve been missing. I’m definitely very excited for it,” said Davis. “We’re not necessarily focusing on what we’re lacking by not being able to physically gather, but really play up some of the benefits of being able to access art from all over the world.”

“I am excited to think that mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, and mentors — no matter where they are — will be able to access this year’s festival over the course of 11 evenings. We are bringing their children’s performances into the family home, wherever that home may be,” added Megan. “If we are lucky enough to produce next year’s festival on campus, this level of global accessibility has to stay a priority.”

The videos were compiled and produced with support from staff members from FAS Media and Technology Services, including manager of the media production center Tony Di Bartolo and media technicians Peter Traver, Otto Klammer, Plamen Petkov, and Jose Mejia. The performances will be complemented by a series of panels featuring conversations with previous Harvard Arts Medal winners — including Yo-Yo Ma ’76, Mira Nair ’79, and Margaret Atwood ’62 — on subjects including “Writing and Inner Witnessing,” “Performance and Creative Agility,” and “Music and Human Connection.”

Harvard ballet company.

The Harvard Ballet Company performs “Experience” choreographed by Amy Benedetto ’23 featuring, from top to bottom and left to right: Nina Montalbano ’23, Audrey Jones ’22, Abbey Pan ’22, Amy Benedetto ’23, Olivia Sison ’21, Sara Komatsu ’23, and Jennifer Ahmann ’23.

Photo by Audrey Jones

Throughout the festivities, visitors to the Arts First website can also browse online galleries and exhibitions and audio creations by members of the Harvard community. And in keeping with tradition, there will be art-making. The Materials Lab at the Harvard Art Museums will provide activity suggestions for viewers to do at home, and the Art Museums’ Jenny’s Café created a recipe for a signature drink inspired by this year’s purple color scheme: a blackberry thyme soda.

For Davis, the celebration of Harvard’s artistic spirit is a bright spot in what remains an uncertain and difficult time, particularly for performers whose careers are still in flux due to the pandemic.

“With everything that’s happened with a pandemic, the arts and artists have really taken a hit, so it has been great to see Harvard students still be able to come forward and put together really innovative, creative performances,” she said. “They’re letting their light shine through all of the chaos and all of the tragedy. That perseverance is very comforting and reassuring to see, because even though there are all these other things going on, the arts aren’t going anywhere.”

All Arts First events are free and open to the public.