What once was an empty lobby at the Vassar entrance of Stata — a large space, industrial white, washed with natural-light, but shrouded in concrete — is now filled with MIT’s newest addition to it’s public art collection. The new art piece, left untitled, is created by Anish Kapoor, a London-based artist who is most famous for his Chicago piece Cloud Gate (resembling a giant chrome kidney-bean). Filling the once-empty space his new oversized sculpture: a massive sheet of ultra-polish stainless steel, curved like a melted sheet of glass, diffracting light of the nearby skylight. Herds of tourists stop by each day, pausing in front of Kapoor’s piece to photograph their distorted reflections.
Here, The Tech interviews MIT’s newest public art curator, Alise Upitius G ’08, to get an inside look at Kapoor’s newest piece and the history of MIT’s public art collection. Upitis completed her graduate work in Course IV (Architecture) at MIT and also was a visiting scholar in the archive for the Center of Advanced Visual Studies. She began her position as public art curator this past August, replacing the recently retired former curator Patricia Fuller.
The Tech: How did the new Anish Kapoor piece find its way to MIT? Was it designed especially for the campus?
Alise Upitis: The Kapoor piece is a new commission, and made specifically for the site. It is part of MIT’s Percent-for-Art Program, where a percentage of the cost of a total building project is allocated for new works of art. And for this piece in Stata, Kapoor was invited, saw the location, and wanted to do a new work. Each building project has a site committee made up of individuals who will use the building, including faculty and/or students, the architects, MIT facilities project managers, and others. Kapoor came before he began designing the art piece and approved the site. He’s seen a photo since it’s installation in Stata, although he hasn’t seen the finished piece on-site in person. Anish Kapoor was selected for this project in 2004.
What’s really interesting to me about Kapoor’s new piece in Stata, is that his other large sculptures—such as the well-known Cloud Gate in Chicago—are convex and this one is unusual in that it’s concave. It fits the architecture of the site very well. In particular, the light patterns from the clerestory windows that the concave shape reflects works very well. Also, the piece looks as if it’s almost leaning against the wall, but actually it’s installed with a bracket and a steel plate holding it in place.
TT: It’s a rather large piece — where from and how was it shipped to MIT? Kapoor is listed as living in London? Did the piece have to come all the way from the UK?
AU: The fabrication took place in Oakland, California, from where it was assembled and then shipped.
TT: What is the new Kapoor statue made out of? What are the dimensions? How heavy is it?
AU: The sculpture weighs about 3500 hundred pounds, and it is 16 ft tall and about 7 wide. It’s actually uniformly shaped [rectangular and not tapered]. It’s made of mirror-polished stainless steel.
TT: How does the Percent for Art Program at MIT work? How was it started?
AU: For each large building project a percentage of the building cost is allocated for art. The program began in 1968, but there’s a cap for the art pieces costing $250,000. With most projects, there are generous donors to supplement the additional cost, some who wish to remain anonymous. But we’re always trying to be as economical as we can be.
TT: Is the public art initiative and the Percent-for-Art Program facing any recent budget cuts, like many other sectors of MIT?
AU: The large building projects scheduled are currently coming to an end, and there aren’t any other major building projects
planned for three or four years. So in that sense, there won’t be any new major pieces.
TT: What other new art pieces have recently been or will soon be put on display on campus?
AU: This year there’s the Cai Guo-Qiang sculpture, Ring Stone at the new Sloan Building and the Richard Flesicher seating installation in the Media Lab courtyard. There will be a new piece by Scottish artist Martin Boyce installed in the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research in December, in the first floor , that will be a sculptural wall piece.
TT: What is the role of the public art curator?
AU: It’s always very much a group project among the staff. The public art curator coordinates and oversees the selection of artists and artworks and the installation of new works, as well as the maintenance of existing pieces—because they’re often outside, they’re subject to vandalism or simply the weather, and such pieces require constant monitoring. The public art curator also works to supplement our student loan art program with around fifteen new works annually.
TT: How can a student get art from the student loan art program?
AU: The student loan art exhibition will open September 7. The works are hung in the List
galleries on the first floor of E15, and individual students or student groups may register their top three selections for works. A lottery system then determines who is able to receive the works. It’s very popular, and we always have to turn students alway, which is unfortunate
TT: How did the public art collection at MIT get started? When did it get started?
AU: The first work of public art was a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Samuel A. Marx, and they commission Dimitri Hadzi to complete the bronze artwork Elmo installed outside of Hayden library. That was in 1961. In 1963, The
Big Sail was commissioned by funds made available by Mr. and Mrs. Eugene McDermott. And it’s grown from there.
TT: Why did MIT decide to go with more of a public art initiative than sustain a small gallery?
AU: Well, the List has a really excellent gallery with temporary exhibitions. I find it quite impressive that we can install, and produce a catalog to go along with,four or five exhibitions a year, exhibitions of contemporary artist. The permanent collection is comprised of the public art collection, the student loan artworks, and the works that the fortunate staff and faculty can borrow for their offices. MIT’s history surrounding the visual arts is very interesting and rather idiosyncratic… it’s really evidence of a dialogue with MIT’s prominent history surrounding science and engineering.
TT: What sort of upkeep for these statues is needed?
AU: They all require regular cleaning, those that are painted all need regular painting. And because the environment is not that of a traditional museum and can’t be so controlled, the works outside get a lot of wear and require specialized conservation treatments. The Kapoor sculpture, in particular, is very easily scratched.
TT: I noticed all of the toddler sized figure prints the other day...
AU: [Laughs] Yes, I actually cleaned it this morning.
TT: Where do the funds for upkeep come from?
AU: We are currently building an endowment for conservation and preservation, but haven’t yet reached our goal for that.
TT: It seems to be a little-known fact among students here that MIT actually owns art pieces from several very famous artists, like the Picasso by Sloan and the Rodin in Hayden library. How did MIT acquire these pieces, in particular?
AU: The Picasso was purchased through funds made available by an anonymous donor, and that will be re-sited in the upcoming year [it was moved to storage due to construction in Sloan]. And we haven’t decided where we’re going to resite it yet. The Rodin was purchased.
TT: How can students and MIT community members take full advantage of MIT’s public art collection?
AU: The public art is everywhere at MIT, and in recent years a number of works have been installed in new MIT dorms, such as the Dan Graham in Simmons Hall or the Lawrence Weiner in Ashdown House. If you’ve ever used the treadmill or pool at Zeisner, your’ve spent time with the Matthew Ritchie Games of Chance and Skill. We also offer public art tours, and have a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to create podcast for much of the public art collection. . However, anyone can download our public art map at http://listart.mit.edu/map and take a self-guided tour.
TT: How can students help preserve the art?
AU: They can appreciate the art by looking and not touching. And please don’t hack the art. [Laughs]. We love the creativity at MIT, but not when it damages the artwork.