A Lab Like No Other

Bolstered by donor support, a one-of-a-kind arts space inspires creativity, research, and collaboration

Art Lab Building Exterior

A Lab Like No Other

The glow from the Harvard ArtLab’s radiant signage and illuminated windows—against the backdrop of the building’s industrial aesthetic—serves as a warm invitation to come inside and explore. More than a year since opening, this 9,000-square-foot interdisciplinary space has become a hub of innovation and creativity—and a conduit between the arts at Harvard and the Greater Boston community.

A laboratory for experiments in production, collaboration, and process, the ArtLab is a creative complement to the expanded Harvard ecosystem in Allston—which includes Harvard Business School, Harvard Athletics, the i-lab, Launch Lab X, the Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab, the Harvard Ed Portal, the Science and Engineering Complex (home of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences), a planned Enterprise Research Campus, and a prospective new site for the American Repertory Theater.

The ArtLab’s closely adjacent interdisciplinary spaces—along with a large, open multipurpose area—facilitate experimentation across fields in a way that hadn’t been possible previously due to the geographically dispersed nature of studio and performance spaces across Schools and departments, providing an unprecedented opportunity to shatter the boundaries of artistic genre.

But perhaps most valuable to artists is the ArtLab’s ability to function as a laboratory to incubate and grow their ideas.

“The ArtLab is the place for research and development of artwork before you see it in a museum, before you see it in the theater, before you see it on the stage,” explains Bree Edwards, director of the ArtLab. “This is R&D—a research and development space—and it plays a role in helping Harvard’s students understand the work that goes into art making. The ArtLab is also a space for coming together, swapping ideas, and collaborating across disciplines.”

Embracing the ArtLab as a vehicle for creativity and connection, donors Scott Mead AB ’77, Richard MBA ’59 and Ronay Menschel, and Diana Nelson AB ’84 and John Atwater each made gifts in honor of President Emerita and Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor Drew Gilpin Faust, who established a University-wide Task Force on the Arts in 2007 to make the arts an integral part of the cognitive life of the University.

Inspired by Faust’s leadership and by his own artistic journey at Harvard, Mead sees supporting the ArtLab as a way to broaden artistic expression and appreciation at the University.

“The concept of creativity is to challenge orthodoxy, to challenge paradigms, and to find creative solutions. And that’s more important than ever. The world needs people who have had the opportunity to look at things differently,” explains Mead, a photographer whose work spans decades, appearing in several exhibits at London’s Royal Academy. “The ArtLab struck me as a unique opportunity to try something that hadn’t been done before. This was one of those ‘if you build it, they will come’ moments.” 

“The ArtLab is the place for research and development of artwork before you see it in a museum, before you see it in the theater, before you see it on the stage.”


With their gift to the ArtLab, the Menschels built upon many years of support for innovative programs all across the University and in the arts, including the previously established Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Harvard Art Museums.

A fine arts concentrator and active member of the theater community as an undergrad, Nelson is a longtime patron of the arts at Harvard and elsewhere. In addition to giving to the ArtLab, Nelson—now a member of the Harvard Corporation—has served on several arts committees as a member of the University’s Board of Overseers. 

In its first year, the ArtLab hosted 17 artist residencies that incorporated everything from dance and wearable technology to voice and architecture. The ArtLab welcomed students from across Harvard through workshops, performances, and an inaugural Wintersession intensive that featured a laser cutter as a tool for creativity.

Although the pandemic has curbed in-person events this fall, the ArtLab has pivoted to focus on supporting Harvard faculty in the production of video content for online teaching and learning, especially studio-based art and music courses.

The ArtLab will also support several faculty-led projects that are responding to the pandemic, such as four-time Grammy Award–winning musician Esperanza Spalding’s Sonic Healing Lab, which will bring students together with professionals from public health and the entertainment industry to create music that responds to COVID-19 and explores music as a tool for healing.

“The ArtLab is unique,” Edwards remarks. “I’ve had other universities contacting me to come tour the building, curious to find out what the ArtLab is all about. It’s also making an impact on the arts at Harvard—almost like a retreat where students, faculty, and artists can avoid distractions, become vulnerable, take risks, and feel safe doing so, knowing there’s something really special they’re going to do here.”

ArtLab: Year One

Since its inception, the ArtLab has brought together artists across disciplines to push the boundaries of art.

{ Q+A }

ArtLab Director Bree Edwards

Bree Edwards

Q: Why is creating and experiencing art important now, and how does the ArtLab support this work? 

A: The value of artists is that they tackle the big, tough questions of our time. Artists and people who create are incredibly powerful at this particular moment because art can spark the imagination and evoke emotions. Artists can also help people imagine something different from our everyday reality—and right now, this is critical.

Q: What are some current and upcoming projects you’re excited about?

A: While most of the campus is working and learning remotely, we have transformed the ArtLab into a media production studio, allowing us to safely broadcast out to members of the Harvard community wherever they are during the pandemic. We have arts faculty teaching from inside the ArtLab to better recreate the campus experience. We have also begun to produce a database of makerspace-oriented videos in collaboration with workshops and fabrication labs across the campus.

When people can safely return to campus, several faculty-led public art projects will be produced in the ArtLab. In these public projects, Harvard students will be working with professional artists while also swapping ideas with local high school students and Boston’s medical community members.

Over the next year, I look forward to extending the length of our artist residencies. In year two, we will also pilot a number of new collaborative partnerships across Harvard. These interdisciplinary collaborations will lead to new modes of thinking and making. 

Q: How is an ArtLab residency unique?

A: Harvard has many exceptional fellowships. What is unique about the ArtLab residency is that it prioritizes an artist’s engagement with the Harvard community while also supporting an artist’s own research and production. At the ArtLab, students are exposed to a creative culture that can expand their experience at Harvard and lead to a lifetime of exploration.

One of the first artists to work in the ArtLab was Claire Chase, a professor in the music department. Claire was an ideal inaugural artist-in-residence because her practice is entrepreneurial and collaborative, and her enthusiasm is contagious. Claire is an entrepreneur, creating new types of arts organizations and challenging her students to do the same. She demonstrates that one can be both virtuosic and innovative. Her residency included many touchpoints with the community, including experimental new music workshops with her students. One workshop included six women composers from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music who wrote new music for Claire’s students to perform. It was an honor to have the Australian composers premiere their work in the ArtLab.

It is important that we can also support the creative practice of Harvard’s art faculty. During her residency, Claire worked with 15 professional collaborators and together they premiered a concert of new music commissioned for flute and electronics, featuring Claire. Usually, her students would need to travel to New York or Europe to have the experience of seeing Claire’s annual new music concert.

Q: How is the ArtLab connected to the Boston community?

A: The ArtLab has quickly become a place to connect Harvard and the community. The Allston neighborhood is a vibrant part of the Boston arts ecosystem, home to many musicians and artists. We are interested in supporting art projects with local relevance and artists of international significance. In Allston, we are surrounded by the creativity of artists, fabricators, and performers. I am looking forward to finding ways to expand this creative ecosystem through the ArtLab’s residencies, workshops, public art, and events.

Q: What do you hope for the future of the ArtLab?

A: This time of dramatic change is the perfect moment for the ArtLab. The building itself was designed to be as flexible as possible to respond to artists’ needs as they evolve. Over the next few years, I look forward to expanding the artist residencies so that more students can engage with the visiting artists. Additionally, it will be transformational when artists begin to work alongside the engineers and scientists in the new Science and Engineering Complex next door.

The artists working in the ArtLab and at the intersection of the visual, literary, and performing arts help us to better understand what research and rigor are. It is my job to make sure they have the tools they need to do their work.

Netting Zero

The ArtLab has been constructed to be as flexible, efficient, and sustainable as possible—built to meet Massachusetts’s high-energy efficiency standards. Photovoltaic panels on the roof produce enough energy for its operations, and insulated glass and polycarbonate panels allow for natural light to fill the building during the day. As a building with net-zero emissions, the ArtLab will serve as a model for future campus projects, contributing to the University’s pledge to be fossil fuel­–neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel–free by 2050.

Artists in Action

From dance and wearable technology to voice and architecture, the ArtLab hosted 17 residencies in its first year along with a variety of programs for students to explore the art-making process.