Counter started the portraiture project with the goal of capturing the diversity of those who have served the University for at least 25 years with distinction.
“Allen Counter was the first one at Harvard, in the modern period, to see the potential culture-changing power of portraits on the walls of the University,” Coit said. “Before that, new portraits at Harvard had been limited mainly to outgoing presidential portraits that were hung in the rarely visited, highly exclusive Faculty Room in University Hall.”
Counter recognized that contemporary portraits of distinguished individuals “who were part of the underrepresented minorities could tell a compelling story that would be immediately apparent to all,” Coit said.
“Unlike Harvard presidential portraits, Foundation portraits would be placed in Houses, libraries, and in spaces like Annenberg, where students would view them on a daily basis, a powerful way to communicate inclusiveness at Harvard.”
Through the project and other commissions inspired by the Harvard Foundation’s work, Coit has added 26 new faces to the pantheon, among them Robert Tanner Freeman, the first African American to graduate from the Dental School of Medicine and earn a dental degree in the U.S., in 1869, and Richard Theodore Greener, the first African American to graduate from the College a year later in 1870 (his portrait hangs in Annenberg Hall).
Coit cut an unusual path to the visual arts from the Business School but said he uses his M.B.A. “every day in painting,” applying lessons learned working for firms such as G.D. Searle and Hewlett-Packard Corp. to his artistic practice.
“I tell many people that want to go into the arts that business school is fabulous training. … It gives you so much flexibility, so much conceptual strength, so much interpersonal strength,” Coit said. “And every good artist is an entrepreneur.”
In recent years, Coit has taught a portrait workshop during Wintersession. “I learned a lot about teaching from going to Harvard Business School. … I guess I teach portraiture by the case method.
“I would always ask my subject, what do you want to say in your portrait? What is the message for future generations? … In a way, each of the portrait artists in my class are writing a case about the subject.”
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