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Student Center Art Debate Resurfaces in Series of Talks

By Eric Richard
Staff Reporter

Discussion surrounding the selection and placement of art in the Student Center resumed Wednesday as the Office of Arts and the List Visual Arts Center opened talks on the issue.

Approximately $70,000 is available for the project 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.

Wednesday's discussion ended a 21/2-year hiatus in the selection process, and was the first in a four-part series among students, faculty, the Office of the Arts, and Mags Harries, the Cambridge artist who will be responsible for creating a work for the building.

The meetings are intended to begin "a dialogue, conversation, and collaboration with students and Mags Harries for a piece of art to be installed in 1993," said Maureen Costello, director of special programs in the Office of the Arts.

In 1990, Harries proposed that a shaman's hat, woven from hair donated by members of the MIT community, be hung in the student center atrium. Students reacted strongly against the proposal, and it was soon dropped.

The organizers of the event emphasized that this discussion was intended as a fresh start. "We are starting with all of our options out on the table. We are certainly not coming back with the idea that we are trying to retrofit and old notion," Costello said.

"Each project I do is different," Harries said. "I don't come in with an image, and I accept all ideas that come in. I am trying to start with a whole new ball game. What is most important to me is that [the students] care for the final piece."

Student input

A large part of the discussion involved ideas for what students wanted in a piece of art and what they perceived to be the meaning of the Student Center. "We are trying to establish a discussion about life at MIT so that Mags Harries can get a feel for our perceptions of the Student Center," Costello said.

"Some parts of the Student Center have very complex social and intellectual interactions going on," said Richard J. Barbalace '94. "The art should strive to be as complex as an MIT student."

"The piece should have the potential to physically become part of the Student Center," added Matthew K. Gray '95. "Then it would mesh in and would not be viewed as a single piece of art."

Glen D. Weinstein '92 described the Student Center as "the heart of campus," saying, "Everybody comes through this building every week if not every day. Some parts of it almost feel like home."

Ellen T. Harris, associate provost for the arts, said that the same feelings came across in the discussions in the spring of 1990.

"What struck me the most and made me decide that we had to change our original ideas was that the students thought of the Student Center as their living room," she said. "And what you enjoy in a museum is not what you want in your living room."

One point that the coordinators tried to emphasize was that these discussions, in contrast to those of 1990, are very focused around student interaction from the beginning.

"The difficulty [in 1990] was that when we first started having meetings, there was already a proposal on the table," Harris said. "Students thought they were being brought in too late and that the piece of art did not represent them."

Three meetings to follow

Four meetings are scheduled to progressively develop ideas about the project. Costello described Wednesday's meeting as "setting a context for thinking about and discussing public art."

At the next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 8, Costello said she hopes to see "a lively discussion about what is important to the students," including specific ideas about what the art should include.

The students will then be able to hear Harries' perceptions of the students' input at a Nov. 19 meeting.

"Mags will reflect on ideas which are intellectually and artistically interesting to her," Costello said.

Finally, by February, Harries will present two or three visual models for the community to inspect. At this point, a smaller assembly of students will be working with Harries on small refinements to her ideas.

Catherine N. Stratton, wife of the 11th president of MIT, Julius A. Stratton '23, said, "I think that this is the most exciting time. The students are getting in on the decision-making."

Harris seconded that opinion. "If we don't get student proposals, who knows what we will wind up with," she said.