The Murthy Agora is one of the studios available for arts project residencies in the Ruby—which means a wide range of exhibitions, workshops, installations, and other collaborations are supported in this flexible community arts space.
Supporting Arts from the Inside Out: Harsha Murthy (T’ 81)
The arts are a consistent passion for Harsha Murthy, who knows the importance of nurturing both creative spaces and minds at Duke. “I want the Ruby to not only be a space where students can take classes but a ‘maker space’ where they can both create and be exposed to art.”
Harsha Murthy (T ’81) knows how to inspire entrepreneurship in the arts.
He also understands the value of giving back to Duke while supporting his passions. As chairman and a member of the Duke Library Advisory Board, Murthy donated to Duke Libraries in support of the Murthy Digital Studio in the Edge and, in 2017, he contributed to the Rubenstein Arts Center to support The Agora: The Murthy Arts Commons and programming initiatives.
As a lifelong arts supporter, Murthy has served as the chair of multiple arts boards, including the Battery Dance Company of New York, the Chamber Dance Project, Corbin Dances, Rioult Dance Company, and others. He also is a member of the Duke Angel Investor Network and the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Task Force. In February 2019, Murthy won a Grammy Award, “Best Latin Jazz Album,” for his work with Eric Oberstein (T ’07) as executive producer for Back to the Sunset by the Dafnis Prieto Big Band. During his day job, Harsha works as a senior financial and pharmaceutical-biotech executive and investment fund manager.
Murthy believes that cultural organizations share an affinity with startup companies. As he says, “Artists need people around them to advance their objectives.”
Read on to learn how Murthy’s unique mindset has informed his giving to the arts, including support for the Ruby as it grows into a “democratic space” that is a “‘third place’—neither home nor work—but a place where you’re with people, you’re learning about and experiencing art, and you can just have a great time.”
Q: Did you engage with arts at Duke while you were an undergrad?
HM: I was involved in music in high school (playing in a band, singing in high school musicals, and taking piano lessons), but there comes a point when you say to yourself, “Can I really make it [as an artist]?” I realized I didn’t have the raw talent or dedication to be a full- time musician. I didn’t apply to a conservatory, but instead, I fell in love with Duke and decided to find other ways to pursue my interest in the arts once I arrived on campus.
I auditioned for and joined the Duke Chorale, which is a mixed choir group, and sang occasionally with the Chapel Choir. Later on, I sang with a capella groups and I remember having to hop on the East-West Campus bus twice a week for Chorale rehearsals in Baldwin, which felt like I was going to ‘the back-of-the-beyond’. At the time, Baldwin was fairly ramshackle— nothing like the gorgeous, acoustically beautiful space it is today.
Many of Duke’s graduates go into careers in the arts. However, when I was an undergraduate, there wasn’t much exposure to these kinds of alumni. Now I encourage all Duke alumni to come back to campus and to interact with students. The experience a student has interacting with someone older who can become an inspiration and role model can change a life.
When I was at Duke, it seemed everybody wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, or investment banker. As an alumnus, I want us to reimagine what a student’s life would be like if she or he said, “I just saw Mike Posner back on campus and I think I could be a songwriter or producer,” or “Deborah Rutter came from the Kennedy Center and I’d love to run a large arts organization that serves a community.”
Q: How are you helping to facilitate that vision for the arts at Duke?
HM: There are two things I love to do. I want to make sure that students like me—who had a connection to the arts when they were younger but are not pursuing it professionally—can still have an outlet for the arts at Duke. That may be as simple as taking part in an arts event.
The second thing is that I want a place where people who are interested in the arts can learn the necessary skills to be a successful arts manager, arts producer, or board member. There are so many ways you can help individual artists or arts organizations realize their goals.
“It takes a team of people with different skillsets to realize any goal. The same is true in the arts.”
That’s why I helped support the arts management class taught by Eric Oberstein, which teaches students how to create a successful organization in the arts. We’ve been able to bring great artists, board members, and managers back to campus through this class.
I’ve often talked about building arts organizations like a startup company. It’s an entrepreneurial enterprise. Most arts organizations start out with the vision of an artist. The most successful arts organizations go beyond that, however, to find the right team. These organizations have people with a variety of skillsets that the artist might not have. As I said at the Grammy ceremony, helping people realize their dreams is so important. Dafnis’ album was a labor of love and the entire team brought something to fruition that was merely a dream just three years ago.
Q: How does the Ruby fit into your vision?
HM: I was delighted when Duke announced the initiative to build an arts center and to create a centrally located arts district between East and West Campus, accessible to all.
The Ruby inspires creative thought and innovation through the collision of multiple disciplines in a space designed specifically for artistic activity. I want the Ruby to not only be a space where students can take classes but a “maker space” where they can both create and be exposed to art (music, sculpture, theater, paintings, or video installations).
That is why I supported bringing a coffee cart into the Ruby—to promote the notion of the arts center as a place where students, faculty and visitors could learn, create, experience and linger. One of the lessons we learned from the renovation of Perkins Library is that beautiful spaces create great programs. I wanted to make sure my gift supported not only the physical space but the activities that go into it and the people (faculty and staff) that make the programs work.
It has been a pleasure working with Scott Lindroth, Richard Riddell, Larry Moneta, Amy Unell, and others in the Duke administration to help realize this vision. I am thrilled to see how the role of the arts, and the number of ways students and alumni can be active in the arts, has increased over the last several years at Duke.
To help launch the Rubenstein Arts Center, we named one of the multipurpose studios “The Agora: Murthy Arts Commons.” I was very intentional about including the word “Agora” in the title. I thought this was an appropriate name for a room that could be a gathering place for students, faculty, and others to enjoy the arts.
A lot of people comment on the “work hard, play hard” atmosphere at Duke. I wanted to create a place where people could come together and avoid that bifurcated environment. My hope for the Ruby is for it to be the place for the arts that is neither home nor work—a place where you’re enjoying art, learning something about yourself and others along the way and simply having a great time.