Columns

Sweren ’15: The reverse art heist

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, November 21, 2014

These days, I’m not surprised when someone gets away with stealing millions of dollars of art. Just the other day, three men posing as volunteers walked out of a gallery in London with thousands of dollars tucked beneath their arms. Some incidents have fairy-tale endings in which the work and the rightful owner reunite. Others, such as the 2012 Dutch case in which works were potentially burned, have a different fairy-tale ending: the witch-in-oven plot.

I’m not sure what to call it when art, instead of disappearing, shows up overnight. Pop-up art? Too literal. Maybe a reverse art heist? No one’s watching; no one knows where it comes from; undisclosed amounts of money swap sides. First, Brown says, “Let there be a Puryear,” and it materializes on site. Then Brown says, “Let there be a Genger,” and it appears in the shroud of dark. God — read: donors — only knows what Brown’s public art trade will bring next. You’d think that with a collection of names like these, there’s a Maya Lin piece at our door or under the table or on it — oh wait!

The New York Times recently published an article titled “On Elite Campuses, an Arts Race” about the competitive nature of Ivy League schools and their art facilities. James Russell reported on how different universities — namely Harvard, Yale and Princeton — have attempted to bolster their respective programs through state-of-the-art museums and spaces for the creative arts. Russell wrote that Steven Holl, designer of Princeton’s soon-to-be facility, said, “I hope a molecular biologist passing through might look up from his screen and see something that he becomes interested in.” Because art must always serve some utilitarian function.

Brown doesn’t have an art museum, so I understand the institutional envy that defines the sidelines of this bout of Ivy drama. But there’s no need to overcompensate with an influx of big-name artists. Trust me; we already have a lot. There’s Martin Puryear, designer of the Slavery Memorial, who received a National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2012. There’s Orly Genger ’01, designer of “YOU,” the new lobster rope wall sculpture recently installed on the Quiet Green, whose work was exhibited in Madison Square Park in New York City in 2013. And there’s Lin, designer of the yet-to-be-announced water table outside Hunter Laboratory, who is known for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and the Women’s Table at Yale, among other pieces. But to make the perfect reverse art heist, we need more than big names; we need big money.

Lin’s water table, arranged through her relationship with the architect of Hunter Lab and Brown’s “percent-for-art” initiative, in which “one percent of the construction budget … is devoted to the commission of artwork for the building or grounds,” as the Brown website puts it, can be estimated to cost around $200,000. Genger was privately funded, so the price is unknown, but it looks to be a pretty penny. The Slavery Memorial cost around $450,000, a source informed me — quite a grand gift to ourselves to acknowledge the University’s wrongdoings involving slavery and injustice.

It often goes unnoticed, but this type of practice attracts attention and is particularly problematic when commemorating historical wrongdoing, as many factors, including site specificity, can enhance or destroy a particular work of art.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Slavery Memorial. This was a necessary and long-overdue recognition of the University’s direct involvement in the slave trade. Malana Krongelb ’17 and Justice Gaines ’16 argued in Bluestockings Magazine that it ultimately fails as a memorial and causes an “erasure of historical trauma” in both language and form.

Administrators contend that the sculpture occupies the same site as one of the University’s first structures, the President’s House. But it does not stand where the President’s House once stood; neither archaeology digs nor early images of the University support this claim. Instead, it’s arbitrarily plopped onto the campus and strategically pointed toward Hope College — a heavy-handed metaphor if intentional. A memorial for slavery should have been centrally located near University Hall, not skirted to the side where a previous sculpture by Arthur Carter ’53 once stood.

I am not against art. I’m not even against spending big on big-name art. But I am against the supposed need for public art on every aspect of Brown’s campus. There’s a disconnect between this art and its actual function within the community. Brown’s “percent-for-art” program strips inspiration from art and lands art in a preordained system in which new buildings equal new artwork: art for art’s sake. Diane Samuels’ bridge, Ann Hamilton’s carpet and Sarah Oppenheimer’s walkway all exist in specific departmental buildings; they are not public. And due to the confines of their locations, they ultimately fail as works of art and feel forced and prescribed.

The University shouldn’t have to use these artists’ credibility to build its own name. Instead, Brown should use its own credibility to build the name of young artists.

Brown should live up to its reputation and take risks, instead of following in the footsteps of peer institutions — something we’ve been doing far too frequently in recent years. There should be a call for artists, instead of repeated commissions to satellite artists to design works for our campus without an intimate knowledge of our student body, our needs and our uses and preferences of spaces. But for now, they design it; we live with it.

While I respect the value of art, perhaps the University, with its infrastructure problems, policy issues, unstable financial model and thirst for expansion, should consider hobbies other than art collecting. But it’s clear that art on campus serves an ulterior function other than “pure art” or commemoration: By bolstering its collection with collectible names, Brown attracts funding. We call it “public” art, but that public is the select few who visit campus, especially donors. Perhaps the art that Brown acquires from well-respected artists is not for undergrads, graduate students or faculty members but for people with deep pockets and tastes far removed from those of the College Hill community.

If art itself were the object, the name attached would be less important. But it seems the University is more focused on collecting money than producing artists. And if this is the true purpose of art, then it’s a heist well done.

Evan Sweren ’15 is a senior at Brown.

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  • ’14

    Extremely well written article, thanks for sharing.
    Heist well done indeed!