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Stratton artwork is delayed

By Brian Rosenberg

The installation of an artwork in the Julius A. Stratton '23 Student Center continues to falter after the controversy last year over artist Mags Harries' proposal to hang a shaman's hat, decorated with hair donated by members of the MIT community, in the Student Center atrium.

The hair sculpture was chosen under the One Percent for the Arts policy, which requires that 1 percent of the cost of a construction project at MIT be set aside to acquire works of art. The policy was adopted in 1968.

Associate Provost for the Arts Ellen T. Harris said she had tried to restart the process of selecting a work for the Student Center. "I have been trying to start a student committee to [reexamine the needs of the community], and I intend to continue that effort," she said.

On March 14 of this year, Harris posted a message on a Project Athena bulletin asking for student input about the hair sculpture, but said has received no response so far.

"It's disappointing because students were so involved [in discussions] last year. A lot of good things happened last year about public art and the role of the public in public art," Harris said.

"I support a more open process [of selection of a project]. Last year's [process] was one of the most open ever, but I agree that a new proposal needs to be more open, because of where the project is. Students feel that the [Student Center] is their living room. They want challenging art, just not in their living room," she continued.

Harris has created a subcommittee of the Creative Arts Council to examine the One Percent for the Arts policy and to clarify the selection process.

Harris said she is unsure where the project is headed. "The Institute has a commitment to Mags. There's no commitment to putting her work in the Student Center, though," Harris said. Harries, a well-known Cambridge artist, was commissioned last year for the sculpture.

Harris said the approximately $70,000 available for the project is "just sitting around." According to Harris, the One Percent for the Arts policy is flexible and merely suggests that the money from a project be spent near it. "We have several options: We can find another building for Mags, or we could take the money and spend it somewhere else," she added.

Despite the controversy, Harries said she is pleased with the results of last year's proposal. "It's somewhat successful even though I've never done the piece. I made the proposal to get students involved, and I'm amazed at the level of involvement that has resulted," she said.

"The piece has created its own mythology. It's really hitting in the souls of some people," she continued.

Harries said she and Harris have discussed other projects for the Student Center, including the possibility of "making the entire building into a timepiece of some kind."

Harries added: "I think a lot of the problem with the process last year was that it wasn't public enough. I want to make the entire process open from the very beginning. I'm very eager to start fresh with some positive energy behind [the project]."

Haller replaces Altman

Mary L. Haller, who was recently named director of communications in the Office of the Arts, said she has not had time to learn very much about the Student Center sculpture, but that it "seems to have prompted good questions about the role of art on campus. I applaud that kind of feedback," she continued.

Haller replaced the former director of communications, China Altman, who was dismissed from the post effective March 31, allegedly due to personal conflicts between her and Harris. Haller said she knows almost nothing about the events surrounding Altman's departure. "I saw the announcement [for the position] and thought I could make a contribution," she explained.

"[Altman] wasn't mentioned during the interviews, and my feeling is that there is so much ahead of me -- so much potential and so many innovative projects to do, that I'd rather look forward than backward," she added.

Harris said she felt that the events surrounding Altman's departure were not "appropriate for the interview process," and were not discussed as a result.

Harris added that she is "very delighted to have" Haller, who she expects will make "important contributions to publicizing the progress of the arts at MIT."

Haller plans to make the Office of the Arts "a more centralizing force, not just a clearinghouse for information," she said. She would also like to see the greater Boston and Cambridge communities becoming involved in the arts at MIT.

"MIT seems to me to be the perfect place to nurture the connections between the arts and science and technology. People here pursue excellence in everything they do, and I think it's an exciting challenge to extend that to the arts," Haller said.

Haller has worked for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, and most recently, as director of public relations and communications at Northeastern University's Division of Performing and Visual Arts.