WALLS promotes student engagement with art

Last Sunday, WCMA’s WALLS program enable 90 students to take genuine works of art to hang in their dorm rooms. Photo courtesy of Roman Iwasika
Last Sunday, WCMA’s WALLS program enable 90 students to take genuine works of art to hang in their dorm rooms. Photo courtesy of Roman Iwasika

Last Sunday, early risers lined up outside the door of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) for the second-ever release of the 90 artworks of the Williams Art Loan for Living Spaces (WALLS) into the dorm rooms of students. You heard correctly, WALLS is an aptly named program that allows students to take original artworks back to their dorm rooms to display on their walls for an entire semester, entirely free of charge. Undergraduates and even a few graduate students from all corners of campus waited cheerfully in the crisp fall air, some singing along to the tune of student-requested music blasting from a speaker near the doors, and partaking in the fresh-baked peanut butter cookies and coffee generously provided by WCMA’s staff members. Bright pink pamphlets containing alphabetical lists of the available works were passed around, sparking genial debates on the relative merits of the various prints, drawings, paintings and photographs up for grabs. At the head of the line waited the staunchly dedicated WALLS enthusiasts who had camped out all night in sleeping bags and WOC-rented tents, eager to get their hands on a specific work. A substantial line of more casual early birds continued to grow behind them throughout the morning.

At 9 a.m., WCMA’s Director, Christina Olsen ’56, addressed the excited crowd with an introductory speech, “I hope you walk away with the art of your dreams, I hope you get something that you really really really connect with – maybe you love it, maybe you don’t, but [you’ll] remember it forever, and that’s the goal. So good luck, have fun.” Shortly after a logistical breakdown of the event by Sonnet Coggins, WCMA’s associate director for academic and public engagement, the museum doors opened and students began to file into the galleries in orderly groups of 30 to choose their works. Each student was given a numbered bib in order of their place on line and received a two-minute time slot to choose the work which they would take home.

Once inside the WALLS gallery, the already excited atmosphere quickly escalated as each art lover scoped out the galleries, looking for the perfect artwork. The pieces up for selection were carefully chosen by a committee of students, WCMA staff and art donors with the aim of representing any and every student’s aesthetic interests, regardless of major or niche on campus. Various curators and members of WCMA’s staff roamed about to document the event and aid students in their choices as well. There were authentic 18th-century Japanese woodblock prints, works by artists like the absurd Claes Oldenburg and the somber Francisco Goya and even a 16th-century woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. Among the first works to leave the gallery were Marc Chagall’s ethereal blue lithograph print La Création and Ben Sahn’s linear print The Blind Botanist. Each prospective borrower was looking for something different, and most managed to leave with a piece that fit their interests. Cameras clicked and bubble wrap rustled as one by one, all 90 works left the museum to lodge in dorms and co-ops throughout campus.

In addition to glorifying dorm room walls, WALLS also breaks down the invisible wall between students and a work of art that museums inevitably create. Students are actually able to possess this art, pull the frame off the gallery wall with their bare hands and freely contemplate it all semester within their own personal space. It’s a unique opportunity for the average student, unless he or she is a talented art thief. However, thanks to funding from the College’s Fulkerson Fund for Leadership in the Arts, this close student engagement with artworks spanning cultures and centuries was made possible and will continue at the beginning of each semester. The opportunity this program provides, along with the enthusiasm and helpfulness of the WCMA staff members who managed to make waiting in a long line as much fun as claiming an artwork, is a testament to the depth of WCMA’s treasure trove of resources. Each and every student on campus has the power to engage with great art with unparalleled closeness, and events such as WALLS shouldn’t be taken for granted. As Olsen said, “[WCMA’s] collection isn’t ours; it’s really yours. It belongs to the college and it belongs to the students … And WALLS is kind of a reminder to you and to us that that’s true. So don’t waste your four years not getting to know the collection! It’s here for you.”