Arts First to kick off biggest festival yet

Arts First, Harvard’s annual festival showcasing campus creativity, kicks off its biggest year yet on Wednesday featuring five days of concerts, plays, dance performances, visual art displays, and more. Making this year’s celebration particularly poignant is the announcement that the Office for the Arts’ longtime leader — director Jack Megan — will step down on June 30 after 23 years.

During Megan’s tenure, Arts First steadily grew in size and ambition, adding more public art displays and performance opportunities with every passing year. The 2024 schedule will be the largest to date, with an additional day of fun added to the week.

“It’s like an ‘exclamation point’ on the arts year,” Megan said about the festival. “It calls attention in a very large, campus-wide way to the richness of the Harvard arts scene and how vibrant it really is.”

On Thursday, the festival’s first-ever drag show, “Into the Wild,” featuring a cast of Harvard performers donning fashions inspired by nature and the outdoors, will be emceed by environmental activist and acclaimed drag artist Pattie Gonia.

“Since the beginning of time, art has been one of our biggest ways to take action for what we care about and to bring people together,” Gonia said in an interview. “In every single social justice movement in America’s history, art’s been at the center of liberation and community and change.”

Environmental themes also run through student public art displays, including a fiber piece displayed around a red maple tree in Harvard Yard called “Leaf Litter,” by Graduate School of Design student Sophie Chien. The tufted piece represents the natural ecosystem of a tree base without interruption from landscaping.

“It’s not just a piece you look at and think about,” said Chien ’24, who is pursuing a dual master’s in landscape architecture and urban planning. “You can touch it, feel it, understand it.”

“What I’m feeling is not a sense of looking back but looking forward.”

Jack Megan
Jack Megan,
Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Other highlights of the week include a talk with Oscar-nominated filmmaker and screenwriter Ava DuVernay; an electronic drone concert composed on vintage synthesizers; and an open rehearsal by dance company RootsUprising of a work in progress called “Witness Trees” that explores relationships between nature and enslaved Africans on a South Carolina plantation. See the full Arts First lineup.

“I am excited for this year’s Arts First celebrations,” said Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College. “First, we celebrate our students, their unique gifts and talents, and all those who support our students as scholars and artmakers. Second, we celebrate the students, staff, and volunteers who generate Arts First and all their work behind the scenes and onstage to bring this gathering to our campus. Third, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Office for the Arts funding and the tremendous progress we’ve seen that inspires the next generation of artmakers at Harvard College.”

It’s also a landmark year for the Office for the Arts itself, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

“What I’m feeling is not a sense of looking back but looking forward,” Megan said. “I’m incredibly happy about the arts at Harvard and joyful that we get to mark it in this way every year. Marking 50 years to me is not the end of 50 years, but the beginning.”

Since Megan was named the Office for the Arts’ second-ever director in 2001, extracurricular arts have become one of Harvard’s most popular student activities. Under his leadership, the Office created the Artist Development Fellowship fund and reimagined campus spaces such as Farkas Hall and the Ceramics Program studio. Most recently, he led the office in a strategic planning process, setting up a future for extracurricular arts on campus.

“We are on the precipice of the next great era in Harvard arts and, with the strategic goals set forth in the report, the OFA is positioned to play a major role in that,” Megan said.

The Harvard Arts Medal, established in 1995, has remained a key tradition. Receiving the honor this year, with a public ceremony slated for Wednesday evening, is poet, scholar, and director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture Kevin Young ’92.

Megan leaves with many great memories — like the time he had to fix a giant egg sculpture that toppled over in the Yard, or when he got to watch students perform “Sing Out, March On” in honor of the late Congressman John Lewis when Lewis was Commencement speaker in 2018.

But Megan’s favorites are the simple memories — all the times he saw students collaborate and create good art.

“I feel enormous gratitude to have anything to do with supporting the creative journey that our students go on,” Megan said. “That journey is going to continue and it’s going to get stronger in the years ahead.”

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