To commemorate its 75th anniversary next year, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) will commission a landmark piece of sculpture for the space in front of Lawrence Hall. The selection process began last January, when artists submitted preliminary proposals. In September, the four finalists were announced: Tom Otterness, Roy Lichtenstein, Vito Acconci and Louise Bourgeois. The selected sculpture will be announced on Oct. 27, with construction beginning shortly thereafter, culminating with the dedication of the piece on Oct. 6, 2001.
The proposals are being reviewed by the Acquisitions Committee, composed of museum staff, the art department and the administration, and an ad hoc committee composed of representatives of the faculty, the student body, the administration and the community. The committees are also taking into account the opinions of visitors to the museum who make comments in the ledger provided.
The selection of a piece will be based on the degree to which it satisfies the requirements set forth by WCMA. The museum is an unobtrusive building; from the outside, one would never guess that the building housed such an impressive collection of art. Furthermore, the entrance to the building is hard to find, sitting quietly to the side. The sculpture chosen should announce the presence of the museum as a house of art and should direct visitors to the often overlooked entrance. The piece should also transform the space in front of the museum into a space where people can gather.
The overarching vision of the piece, most importantly, is that it should “represent the vision of the museum as a whole,” says Lisa Dorin, a curatorial assistant. “We want to really demonstrate our commitment to contemporary art, but also our commitment to education. The piece that we choose, we would like to have some lasting art historical value. Also, it should be something that will represent our commitment to pursuing an educational experience with art, and not something that is just going to be easily digestible, but that will make people think.”
Deciding which sculpture satisfies this overarching vision is the main task for the committees right now. All of sculptures satisfy the more general criteria; otherwise, they would not have been selected as finalists. Discerning which piece portrays the vision that the museum wishes to express and projecting into the future to see which piece will have the most lasting value are much more difficult tasks. After thinking about the pieces for a while, I began to appreciate the challenge facing the committees, as each of the works is outstanding in its own right.
The vision of the museum is a complicated one. WCMA wants a piece of contemporary art that will have a lasting impact. However, what exactly is “contemporary art” and how does one predict if it will “have a lasting impact?” The Lichtenstein piece is compelling: a 30-foot tall metal representation of a brush stroke in black and white. Quite likely, the work would have a lasting impact; if WCMA is looking for a famous artist, Lichtenstein fits the criteria.
However, because he is no longer alive, one could question whether he fits into the contemporary art category, whether the piece would be furthering the progress of contemporary art, or whether it would be supporting a past era. Also, the piece is not site specific: the artist created the piece before the commemoration was proposed. It does not specifically provide a place for people to congregate outside of the museum, and it doesn’t really direct people to the entrance of the museum. However, it would attract people from Main Street and probably from further away, bringing them in to see a monumental piece of artwork.
The Bourgeois presents the same difficulties as the Lichtenstein in that the artist has never visited the site. She has proposed working with a landscape architect in order to create a rolling terrain in which she can place the sculpted eyes that form the focus of the project. The work poses a very interesting situation of art watching the viewer, but the conception of the piece is still up in the air. The bare bones model of her piece poses a problem in that it is hard to conceptualize the piece in the space; thus, making a fair assessment of the piece is difficult. I found myself, regrettably, discounting the work because I could not imagine what it would look like. However, I was intrigued by the concept of the piece, perhaps because I am obsessed with the interrelation of artist, viewer and art.
I have to admit that upon first viewing the Otterness piece, I found it rather odd; I was not particularly attracted to it. Yet the more I looked at it, the more I realized that it is a very compelling piece of art and that it truly satisfies the criteria proposed by the project. The 30-foot tall doll statues, absolutely large enough to attract attention from Main Street, hold their heads in the style of the Green Knight with huge smiles on their faces and look at each other at a diagonal across the quad in front of Lawrence Hall. Their gaze directs the visitor on the path to the museum. The scattered doll parts trickle over all the way to the side entrance, showing the visitor where to go. The various parts serve as benches where people can sit and gather.
Though the piece is definitely a work of a contemporary artist, the lasting nature of the piece is debatable. Would as many people come study and see this piece as might come to see an Acconci or a Lichtenstein? The name bias is hard to ignore, and perhaps we shouldn’t ignore it. On the other hand, supporting a lesser known contemporary artist could have lasting significance, for the artist could turn out to be something very special. Such is the nature of contemporary art: because it is new, its future is undetermined.
Last but not least, I examined the Acconci. I’ve noticed a preference among people I’ve talked to for this piece, and at first, I had the same opinion. It is a very compelling piece by a very compelling person and artist. However, many think that the piece, which is comprised of a large staircase of two angled triangles, eleven feet high on the edges, and eleven feet deep in the middle, does not fit in the space it is intended for. The geometry of the work contrasts sharply with the antiquated architecture around it. Also, there are safety issues in the intensely interactive nature of the piece; the eleven-foot drop could pose a problem, especially when it snows.
I cannot even imagine making the decision of which piece should be installed; each evokes a different image and a different sense of the museum the visitor is about to enter, and each is compelling. The task ahead for the committees boils down to deciding which image best fits what the museum wants to do now and which will continue to display the museum’s commitment to art, to education, and to having a lasting influence on the arts. If you have time, visit the museum and add your input; this art will, by its very nature, be something we notice every day on campus. Hopefully, it will serve as a source of cultural stimulation, something complex enough to provoke an ongoing discussion and foster the appreciation of the arts.