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List Curators Discuss Evolving Face of Public Art

By Benjamin P. Gleitzman

Bill Arning is the curator of exhibitions at the MIT List Visual Arts Center and leads public sculpture tours of the MIT campus. MIT’s public art collection was named one of the ten best campus art collections in the nation by Public Art Review, a national journal on public art.

Recently, The Tech strolled around with Arning, as well as the List Center’s Patricia Fuller, curator of public art, to discuss Institute art programs, recent sculpture additions to MIT, and old myths surrounding public works on campus.

The Tech: How do you select the sculpture on campus?

Bill Arning: There is a Percent for the Arts [Percent-for-Arts policy]. When buildings are going up there is a percent put aside for sculptures. The building users and the architects all meet to try to get a piece that that will be integral to the design.

There are exceptions, like the Mark di Suvero piece [“Aesop’s Fables, II” outside the Stata Center] which was actually the result of a long negotiation with the artist.

Patricia Fuller: There are three different aspects to the public art on campus. One is the permanent collection which are works that have for the most part have been donated or to some extent purchased and which are situated in public buildings – it’s a rotating collection, because the pieces are moved around the campus. Then there is the Student Loan Art Program which includes artwork that students can select by lottery and keep in their rooms for the course of the year. Finally the Percent for Art is money that is set aside for each new building, and that includes some of the major sculptures around campus.

TT: Do you get a new piece every year?

PF: Every time they build a new building or renovate a building, so it’s been pretty busy for the last few years.

TT: There is a Picasso on campus?

BA: It’s right by Sloan. There’s also Tony Smith [“For Marjorie” outside Tang Hall], a really fascinating artist, all the way at the tippy tip of campus near the playing fields.

TT: You also try to have enough money to sustain the piece?

BA: If you look at the early years of commissioning, that was one of the biggest mistakes people made, assuming the sale price was the final cost. Unless you maintain [the sculpture] properly you can’t get people to respect it. So now we always budget … for maintenance. Something as simple as polishing and [art pieces] won’t start looking like the bottom of a frying pan.

TT: In the courtyard of building 14 you recently redid the patina on some pieces.

BA: The Jacques Lipchitz [“The Bather,” “Sacrifice III,” “Hagar in the Desert”] was an interesting story. Lipchitz is really the preeminent cubist sculptor, the Picasso of sculpture. He had done a major show here in the sixties. We received from his widow five sculptures after his death. [We looked at] a range of patinas that included what Lipchitz would have selected from to redo the patina. For public art and for any collection, you do whatever you can to record the artist’s intention as if they were alive.

In the case of Scott Burton [atrium benches in the MIT Media Lab], who died a couple years after finishing the piece, we don’t know to what degree he would be perturbed by the stains [on the benches]. He worked almost exclusively for the last decade of his life as an incredibly successful public sculptor so a lot of his works have gone through changes. Would Scott have wanted us to have gone through extraordinary means to get rid of those stains? We don’t know…

TT: Do you feel that the pieces are taken care of on campus?

BA: It’s gotten much better but we need more money for it. We have a prioritized list of what needs the most work. We have a number of pieces that have gone through major conservation during the past six years. The surface patterns of a piece can look aged, that’s fine. We have to have an expert look at it to determine if it’s just a patina on the surface or if it’s actually decay. You might not be able to see a cavity at the back of your teeth but the dentist says you’ve got a problem. We have to have experts come and look at things regularly but that costs money.

TT: One of the great myths on campus is of the “Big Sail” [in front of the Green Building]. What is fact and what is purely fiction?

BA: At MIT the facts and fiction get mixed. We’ve done a lot of research on the early days of the “Big Sail” coming here. The emergence of a small three-foot model last year furthered our urge to get to the bottom of the story. We got reports from people who said that the only thing that made the doors open-able [to the Green Building] was switching to the revolving doors. The wind effect was not altered in any way by the location of the “Big Sail.” Calder [the architect] is very much a formalist. He would not have re-sighted the piece in order to break the wind. There was an awareness that there was a wind tunnel effect [outside the Green Building], they did build a model with traditional bathroom scales attached to the feet and subjected it to wind tests to see if it would hold on the windiest days.

TT: You have a lot of pieces on campus, is there any sort of rivalry between the artists?

BA: Only when they are first created. Actually the rivalry stories are more about the architects. You have a campus with a history of really super-famous buildings. When Stephen Holl was working on [Simmons Hall] he was working right across from an Alvar Alto dorm [Baker House]. That’s like being asked to paint something right next to Picasso. So those rivalries are there.

TT: Do you ever get architects that turn you down?

BA: Oh sure. Working in the public sphere is a very different way of working — you lose autonomy, you lose control, you have to be willing to collaborate. You’ve got to be willing to deal with very practical concerns. A lot of artists just don’t have an interest in working in that way. In terms of current aesthetics, a lot of artists would be too confrontational in terms of what they do in their gallery shows to put into a public situation.

TT: On “Aesop’s Fables II,” someone tried to put up a swing set?

BA: The swing set appeared right away. One day I was taking a visiting art historian past there, and I saw young girls using the piece as a balance beam … With these pieces there aren’t any fences.

Probably the most extreme version of this is the student loan program. We are handing artwork out to students to take to their dorm rooms. If you’re trained in museum work you’re trained not to let people touch things. The day when we do give out [the artwork] there are all these people just walking out of the museum with artwork. The fundamental idea of art at MIT is to improve student life by being part of their life. You don’t just go look at it some place, it’s all around. There is a truism of MIT that you have to make art a part of [student] life in their first weeks here because once they get into their work routine they’ll never pay attention again.

TT: Is this a good time for art?

PF: It very much fluctuates according to the economy. The republicans tend to not think we should be funding art. If it’s a republican congress it’s maybe less likely that there would be a lot money available. That doesn’t necessarily hold across the board, it’s just a tendency. Right now the National Endowment for the Arts has hardly any money at all.

BA: MIT was considering the ups and downs of government funding and has been a very consistent supporter. More-so than most universities and in fact the Percent for the Arts program policy here predates many municipal codes.

PF: As far as I know, I think it’s the only such program at a private institution. Other private universities have received gifts of works of art but I think MIT is the only one that on a regular basis uses this Percent for the Arts policy to commission new works.

TT: Do you have any favorite pieces on campus?

BA: Probably my favorite is the Harry Bertoia “Altarpiece.”

TT: And that’s located in?

BA: The chapel. Harry Bertoia is such a bizarre character in art history. He built these wire sculptures that are purely decorative. He was sort of a mystic and he would do these performances where he would play his sculptures.

TT: Did he hit them?

BA: He would rub his hands over it in a very dramatic way. He kind of got left out of art history because no one could figure out where to plug him in. Everyone knows the name Bertoia … he is such a bizarre artist.

Another is the Dan Graham [“Yin-Yang Pavilion” in Simmons Hall]. Because it’s a dorm you have to be very careful of the space, so we can only bring people in there occasionally. It’s a yin-yang fountain — one half is wire, one half is gravel. It’s made out of bent glass and very psychedelic. It’s very theatrical, you can go and play guitar or make out. It’s really interesting to see the way that it functions as part of a living environment. The dorm is already so bizarre it seems like another strange play area . It’s a very cool piece.

TT: There’s a piece that spins in Building 66.

BA: When I first came here I had never heard of Nicholas Schoffer [“Spatiodynamic” in building 66]; I kept thinking it was kind of a coat rack. Then, I started getting these e-mails about five years ago from different European PhD candidates asking about the piece and I realized he must be more important than I thought.

He did performance-based sculpture; there were dancers and it would be hit by colored lights. I started realizing this is a really cool object. It got restored so it does spin again. This is a really classic kinetic art piece from the 60s.

TT: Can you tell me about the Zesiger Center wall?

BA: Matthew Ritchie [“Games of Change and Skill” in the Z Center] wanted to find a non-arbitrary way to make abstract paintings; to make things that would be understood as diagrammatic or storytelling but still be in the language of abstraction. So he created this combination of theoretical physics and creation myths and merged them together in a very idiosyncratic way. It goes from the big bang to apocalypse so you can read it either way. We did have Jerry Friedman who is a professor here check the diagrams to make sure that there wasn’t anything wrong. One thing you’re not allowed to do at MIT is have bad science in a piece.

For a map of public sculpture on campus, please visit