Public Art’s Major Role on a University Campus

Alexander Calder, La Grande Voile [The Big Sail] (detail), 1965.

Photo: Charles Mayer Photography.
Alexander Calder, La Grande Voile [The Big Sail] (detail), 1965.
Public art on university campuses are the physical embodiment of institutional missions, and help to contribute to the creation and maintenance of the places where the community can learn, live, and dialogue, within an environment that is rich in meaning.

Public art on university campuses are the physical embodiment of institutional missions, and help to contribute to the creation and maintenance of the places where the community can learn, live, and dialogue, within an environment that is rich in meaning.

photocredit

Harvard’s founder John Harvard by Daniel Chester French.

The classically executed symbol of patriarchy benevolently oversees the incoming freshman in Harvard Yard and it is a featured stop in the campus tour given to prospective students and their parents

 

The Moody Art Center at Rice University in Houston, Texas oversees one of the largest, most rigorous world-class permanent collections of public art in the country. Scattered across the 300-acre campus are works by leading contemporary artists Michael Heizer, Shirazeh Houshiary, Beverly Pepper, Ursula Von Rydingsgard, and Mark di Suvero. Works on permanent display also include an iconic James Turrell Skyspace, a Sol Lewitt wall drawing, and two-dimensional works by Carmen Herrera, Dorothy Hood, Charles Gaines, and Leo Villareal, among many others. This impressive program is relatively new, having been established in 2008, making it the envy of other, more well-established academic arts initiatives.

Several thousand miles away from Houston, La Grande Voile (The Big Sail), a huge stabile by Alexander Calder installed by the artist on site in 1965, dominates McDermott Court on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. It is surprising to discover the evolution and controversies surrounding the installation of public artworks on this densely populated urban campus, but the university has embraced a forward-thinking philosophy when it comes to the integration of art and technology. “The great universities have long sought to achieve an environment where distinguished art, architecture, and landscaping are not just embellishments or luxuries, but are also an essential and natural part of the process of education and growth.” James Killian, Former President (1948-59) at MIT.

wikipedia

Henry Moore, Nuclear Energy

Funding is a key indicator of the support for public art on any campus and the MIT List Visual Arts Center boasts one of the most active Percent-for-Art programs in the country. Since 1968, MIT’s Public Art Collection has continued to grow with up to $500,000 allocated to a new commission with every major renovation or construction project on campus. The List Center oversees the program, bringing site-specific projects by internationally renowned artists to fruition. Despite the interruptions of COVID, MIT’s commitment to art continued to grow. They recently announced several new acquisitions, commissions, and conservation efforts in their 2020-2022 Public Art Program with work by Jeffrey Gibson, Matt Johnson, and Agnieszka Kurant.

Just down the street from MIT, a far more staid approach to public sculpture prevails at Harvard University as evidenced by the larger-than-life-sized seated bronze portrait of Harvard’s founder John Harvard by Daniel Chester French. This classically executed symbol of patriarchy benevolently oversees the incoming freshman in Harvard Yard and it is a featured stop in the campus tour given to prospective students and their parents when considering applying to Harvard.

Counting over seven-hundred college and university art museums in the United States alone is evidence of the important place of the arts within our academic institutions of higher learning. Admission to exhibitions at these cultural institutions is usually free and open to the public as are most college campus grounds although some areas in dense urban environments, like Harvard Yard, are walled and gated.

The role that public art plays within the context of a university campus is viewed as an extension of its institutional mission. Because public art is usually permanent and more visible than work found inside museums, its road from design to funding, to installation is complex. Some universities embrace an art-forward approach, using art to project an aura of intellectual and cutting-edge excitement reflected in their curriculum. Others, perhaps in deference to a more conservative constituency, take a traditional approach. Or, because of economic factors, and potential political controversy, avoid public art altogether.

Alexander Calder, La Grande Voile [The Big Sail], 1965
Photo: Charles Mayer Photography

Alexander Calder, La Grande Voile [The Big Sail], 1965.

Matt Johnson, Untitled (Swan), 2016. 
Photo: Charles Mayer Photography

Matt Johnson, Untitled (Swan), 2016. 

The Nasher Museum of Art
Wikipedia

The Nasher Museum of Art

George Segal, Walking Man
Wikipedia

George Segal, Walking Man

Agnieszka Kurant, The End of Signature, 2021. 
Photo: Charles Mayer Photography

Agnieszka Kurant, The End of Signature, 2021. 

Agnieszka Kurant, The End of Signature, 2022. 
Photo: Charles Mayer Photography

Agnieszka Kurant, The End of Signature, 2022. 

The public art program at Rice University reflects an almost fifty-fifty gender split between female and male artists. This achievement is difficult to match. Other universities with older, longstanding investments in public art, are only now playing a game of gender catch-up in their acquisition program. Some campus museums have followed the lead of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), advocating for lesser-known artists, and uncovering art histories long before doing so became popular. Since it opened in 1985, MIT’s List Gallery has primarily shown artists who have not yet had solo shows. The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, emphasizes collecting works by artists who have been historically excluded by mainstream arts institutions. Wayne State University in Detroit has collected contemporary works by Michigan and regional artists, many of them African American, since the 1960s. This commitment to local talent has an outsized influence: it introduces these artists to the historic source of canon-making itself, the academy, and exposes the next generation of curators, collectors, and museumgoers to their work.

With 60,000 works of art and artifacts in its collection, the Jane Vorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey is one of the largest university art museums in the nation. Founded in 1960, Rutgers has amassed an impressive collection of works from Europe and America. While the museum is notable for the size of its collection, it also showcases an eclectic range, everything from Russian Nonconformist art to contemporary prints. Walking Man by George Segal, a noted contemporary figurative sculptor and a Rutgers alumna, is a popular subject for selfie-takers visiting the campus. The Zimmerli has one of the largest collections of Segal’s work in the world today.

The role that public art plays within the context of a university campus is viewed as an extension of its institutional mission.

Few institutions provide as much insider background information about the controversies surrounding the art on campus as the University of Chicago. Known for intellectual rigor, this university boldly confronts the challenges that public art presents, recognizing that art has the power to fascinate and perplex us, sometimes simultaneously. Art turns common spaces into communal places where people gather to experience the life of the mind and the life of the senses. Some of the most hotly-debated acquisitions have now become treasured sites for engaging with the aesthetics of the natural world and the built environment. Nuclear Energy, by the kingpin of contemporary sculpture, Henry Moore, initially created a firestorm of controversy. Now it is one of the most discussed and admired sculptures on campus.

In his University of Minnesota dissertation on the policies and practices guiding public art on university campuses, Michael Robert Grenier, Ph.D., states, “Public art on campus is the physical embodiment of institutional missions and largely contributes to the creation and maintenance of the places where the community can learn, live, and dialogue within an environment rich in meaning. Public art on campus celebrates the search for knowledge while promoting the free exchanges of ideas.” When parents and students tour a university campus to determine if that institution is right for them, they should take note of if, and how, the art contributes to the physical components of the buildings and their surrounding environments. Campuses are sociocultural laboratories and public art invites social interactions and personal introspection leading to richer opportunities for intellectual growth.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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