Early on in my Brown career, I ascended the five-story staircase in the List Art Center, and level by level, discovered an ever-changing, floor-to-ceiling mural showcasing Brown’s most creative artists. When I introduce prospective students to Brown, I bring them to that staircase to view a unique side of our campus, an embodiment of the creative energy of our student body. I often wonder why Brown does not have more spaces like this.
Brown currently has a “Percent-for-Art” program, which ensures that “one percent of the construction budget of all new buildings and major renovations is devoted to the commission of artwork for the building or grounds.” While this project has contributed some of Brown’s most beautiful and memorable spots on campus, often featuring gracious gifts from alums, wouldn’t some of these spaces be further enriched by incorporating students’ art?
Brown has a large and valuable untapped resource: visual arts concentrators and Brown-RISD dual degree students. Even more striking, in 2017, about 60 percent of students cited an art-related subject as their primary extracurricular interest. Just as students in other disciplines seek publication as validation of their experience in literary and laboratory endeavors, our art students should have more opportunities to contribute to their campus and gain artistic experience and credentials. There is a trove of students whose artistic contributions would enhance Brown’s spaces.
In 2017, Brown launched the Brown Arts Initiative to “fully integrate the arts into a complete liberal arts education.” This project included increased access to the arts across departments and “new opportunities for teaching, research, artmaking, performance and experimentation.” It is intended to cement Brown’s commitment to the arts by creating more opportunities for students to engage through increased access to the arts and artists. However, the Initiative often focuses on bringing to Brown works of artists from outside of the Brown community. While we continue to enjoy the work of these artists, the Initiative should look to further integrate Brown art students into the process and allow them to leave a tangible impact on their campus.
Public art has positive benefits beyond just providing student artists with opportunities to showcase their work. For instance, it can have a positive mental impact on its viewers. Studies have shown public art can reduce levels of stress, foster an increased feeling of community and promote positive health behaviors. Increasing public art will not only help the student artists behind the projects but also benefit other students and the community.
One need not look further than the BioMedical Center and List to see the value of public art. The huge posters adorning the facades of these buildings show photographic scenes of the impact of climate change in the Arctic. The posters are part of a larger initiative, “WeatherProof: Arts, Humanities and Sciences Explore the Environment,” spearheaded by five programs at Brown to “weave across barriers to examine environmental issues with a multidisciplinary lens,” The Herald previously reported. Their focus is not only about visual pleasure, but seeks a more profound impact, leading students to see and contemplate vital issues facing the community. It also shows that art is often multidisciplinary and can have a significant impact in the sciences, environmental justice campaigns and much more. With students contributing to public art through multidisciplinary projects centered on the issues most important to them, they can create art that is impactful and pertinent to the Brown community.
Art does not need to be the next “Mona Lisa” to encourage discussion or act as a rallying point for students, either. At the least, “Blueno,” the 23-foot blue teddy bear plopped onto Ruth Simmons Quad, has been a point of commonality among all Brown students. Even strangers on campus can safely ask “How do you feel about Blueno?” and expect an opinion and discussion. The same goes for “Ideas of Stone,” the ersatz tree next to the real ones on the Main Green. Even unpopular art serves a purpose on campus.
Not all public art needs to be by a renowned author. Our students are talented and well-trained and we should view their work with the confidence that it will contribute positively not only to our campus, but also to a wider community. If art is meant not only to adorn, but to foster creative thought and conversation, should we not look to encourage the greatest contribution from our own students? Is this not the essence of a Brown college experience?
Emily Miller ’19 can be found working on her stick figures in her spare time, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.