Art for all to see: Public art program would enliven dull spaces on campus

Richard Serra, arguably the top living sculptor in the United States, will be speaking at commencement in one month. This semester ARTH302 has been studying public artwork, by artists such as Serra, with Lisa Corrin, the Director of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). After Peggy Diggs’ retirement from teaching public art in the art studio department last year, this is the first course offered that looks at the history and use of public art in cities such as Seattle, New York and Chicago and on college campuses such as MIT and University of California at San Diego. It is clear to our class – and the art world – that art has moved beyond the white cube of the gallery and into the great outdoors, where it has plenty of room to breathe. The time is ripe to bring a public art program to Williams.

Public art can be virtually anything, but it is always created and situated with the intention of changing and challenging the way people interact with a space and art. On a college campus, public art can revive spaces that may have been ignored by community members who rush from one place to another. Public art can also create a focal point that provides a visual and intellectual stimulus for emotional and academic growth. Art can create cohesion, tying together architecture or landscape features that enhance a space and inspire curiosity. It has the ability to create an identity for the site on which it is situated and can serve as an icon for that location or for the community as a whole.

That is a lot of bang for the buck!

Williams College is known for its strong history of art program and its extraordinary collection at WCMA. Still, many students and faculty don’t take advantage of the treasures hidden inside the walls of Lawrence Hall. It is time for us to allow the museum’s collection to infiltrate our community on a daily, permanent basis and to expose us to one of Williams’ greatest resources.

Having public art would change the way we use and view the campus. Right now, as the east-west reorientation of the campus’ axis reaches its final stages with the Stetson-Sawyer project and the new face of Williams reveals itself, it is time for us to turn to the forgotten voids that stand between classrooms and dorms. Williams, as an educational institution, has an obligation to its students, faculty and staff to create a cohesive educational experience with opportunities for learning at every turn. By introducing art into the lives of everyone on campus, the community can learn the importance and beauty of living with art. We deserve it.

We have many public artworks on campus including the Ursula Von Rydingsuard sculpture behind Schow, the Haystack Monument on Mission Hill and the Adirondack chairs on Paresky Lawn. The work that has been most successful in turning a space into a place is Louise Bourgeois’ installation of The Eyes located in front of WCMA. This iconic piece threw down the gauntlet for commissioning top artists and locating works in the eye of the campus. The Eyes have created a popular destination for spring picnics and playing school children and also serve as a transitional space that helps bring the museum into the rest of the campus.

Commissioning more public artwork on campus would be a strong, long-term investment that would further distinguish Williams College’s collection of fine art. Other notable institutions have adopted impressive public art programs. For every building project on MIT’s campus, a percentage of the budget is matched to develop the institution’s public art program. In its collection MIT has several works by sculptors such as Alexander Calder, and it also includes famous architects such as Frank Gehry in its program. At UCSD, they have committed themselves to the continuous accumulation of public art works by leading artists on their campus. Out of over 50 proposals of works by well-known artists, today 17 pieces have been realized, including a green, granite, truism table by Jenny Holzer that inspires studying students. A giant bear composed of boulders by Tim Hawkinson sits outside freshmen dorms as a childhood symbol that every student relates to, especially when homesick.

Public Art has moved beyond the plinth and away from commemorative statuary of man on horse. As a leading academic institution with a stellar reputation for academics, student life and art, it is time for our art collection to move outside the museum walls and spread through the campus. There, it can interact daily with students, faculty and staff in surprising and novel ways to improve our busy and hectic lives. We propose that Williams develop a proactive public art program that will create usable space, engage the community and inspire intellectual curiosity.

Claire Rindlaub ’09 and Adam Banasiak ’08 also contributed to this piece. Eve Streicker ’09 is an art history and practice major from Providence, R.I.