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From Romans to donkeys to abstract concretizations: public art at Brown

A brief overview of the history of public art at Brown, from 1906 to today.

<p>On Sept. 19, 1906, the opening day of the college year, the Caesar Augustus statue was unveiled as the first piece of public art at the University.</p>

On Sept. 19, 1906, the opening day of the college year, the Caesar Augustus statue was unveiled as the first piece of public art at the University.

Walking across the Main Green, you are sure to have encountered the University’s most recent public art installation: Rebecca Warren’s “Large Concretised Monument to the Twentieth Century.” Standing at a height of six feet and consisting of globular bronze mounds, the sculpture has sparked the conversation of what public art’s role is — at the University and otherwise — and what its selection process should look like at the University. 

Currently, public art on campus is determined by the Public Art Committee, which consists of a board of trustees and the Public Art Working group, a cohort that represents student and faculty during acquisition of new works.

“Ideally, decision making about which artists to showcase and which artworks to feature will be resonant with the times and respond to the pressing issues facing our broader community and society,” wrote Avery Willis Hoffman, artistic director of the Brown Arts Institute and professor of the practice of arts and classics, who has served on the Public Art Working group since 2020. A consideration of the history of public art on campus can elucidate the ways in which art’s role has evolved in the University space.


Caesar Augustus, Installed 1906-Pres. 

On Sept. 19, 1906, the opening day of the college year, the Caesar Augustus statue was unveiled as the first piece of public art at the University. The installation began the University’s investment in public art. A cast of the original marble Caesar Augustus statue in the Vatican, the sculpture was acquired and donated by Moses Brown Ives Goddard, class of 1854.

The stoic statue of the Roman Emperor soon lost its raised limb to the elements. In the hurricane of 1938, the sculpture’s right arm was broken off. Despite being replaced after the hurricane, it lost its arm a second time in transport.

The sculpture stood proudly before the Rhode Island Hall until Sept. 1952, when it was moved to its current location outside of the Sharpe Refectory. But its move was not without controversy. As The Herald’s editorial board wrote on Sept. 19 of 1952, “Placing the Roman with a walk running between his back and the Sharpe Refectory is a tactical move that Caesar, the soldier, would decry.” And the sculpture’s placement amongst the anachronistic Georgian Colonial architecture is a “move that Caesar, the aesthete, would abhor.” 

Marcus Aurelius, Installed 1908-Pres.

Two years later, on June 1, 1908, a crowd gathered behind Sayles Hall to see the still-standing Marcus Aurelius statue unveiled. The honorific equestrian sculpture of the emperor-philosopher is, like the Caesar Augustus unveiled two years prior, a bronze copy of a Roman original. 

Professor W. C. Poland, Class of 1868, noted the “Artistic Significance of the Gift” during his speech at the unveiling. According to the June 2, 1908 edition of The Herald (Volume XVII. No. 180), Poland said in part: “This work, strongly realistic, triumphs over the limitations of its production through its intense vitality, and the noble ease and dignity that characterizes both the rider and horse.” 

Poland’s speech suggests that artistic significance rests, to a certain extent, in the representation and preservation of history. For the University, the sculpture not only represents humanistic ideals of realism and stoicism, but also “has a position of importance all its own because it is the largest complete equestrian statue preserved from antiquity.”

The works are connected by more than their roots in Roman antiquity, though; the Marcus Aurelius sculpture was donated by Robert Hale Ives Goddard, Class of 1858, on behalf of his deceased brother Moses Brown. 


Tripes, Alexander Calder, 1976, Installed 2002-2004

If the fin de siecle saw the University’s values as historical preservation and humanism, the early aughts saw a turn towards celebrity and modernity. By the mid 1980s, Chancellor Emeritus Aremis A.W. Joukowsky Jr. ’95, in close collaboration with Visual Art Professor Emeritus Richard Fishman and other members of the administration and faculty, formed the “sculpture committee,” vetting potential donations of sculptures for the University’s grounds, according to the Public Art Working Group website. 

From 2002-2004, kinetic artist Alexander Calder’s “Tripes” occupied the Quiet Green, outside of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World. Despite being a static, weighty steel sculpture, “Tripes” still managed to be a dynamic and playful addition to campus. The bronze, abstract form feels aberrant against the classical architectural surroundings, and yet a 2004 Herald editorial proposed that perhaps “the sculpture’s own identity crisis is at home among the clashes of the (Quiet) Green’s architecture, where colonial brickwork sits next to a Greek chapel, and perhaps even Brown’s iconoclastic Ivy identity.” 

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Because Calder was a “key figure of 20th century art ... to have one of his pieces here for a visit was just great,” said Dietrich Neumann, professor for the history of modern architecture and director of urban studies, who served as the chair of the Public Art Working Group from 2018 to 2021. Part of what makes public art works special, what creates their dynamism, is the everchanging environments that they inhabit: “You have to see these outdoor sculptures in different lights, different seasons. (You have to) move around them,” he said. 

The flux-based, environmental viewing experience that accompanies public art is what allows you to “get more out of (it) than if you just see it in one visit at the musuem,” Neumann said. “To have it right here on our daily walks is just a great privilege.” 

Untitled (Donkey), 2003, Installed 2004

Before the beloved Blueno, there was the enigmatic boat-bound donkey. Installed in 2004 on the west-facing wall of the Sciences Library, the large-scale mural extending over three floors was on loan from the Italian artist herself, Paola Pivi, courtesy of Galerie Massimo de Carlo, Milan. The playful image, created with ink jet on plastic, depicts a donkey riding in a rowboat on a body of water, a humorously absurd combination of land animal and Mediterranean seascape. Displayed just before the 2004 presidential elections, the installation invited both amused delight and speculation of the artist’s political leanings among passersby. 

Despite the brevity of the three-month exhibit from April to August, “Untitled (Donkey)” generated great popularity among students, further celebrated as a mascot via a Facebook page. The visual oddity of both content and location reflected the “wonderful irreverent spirit on campus that is so typical of Brown,” said Neumann. The “surreal wittiness” of the artwork “spoke to all of us,” he added. 

Exhibition of the piece was closed before the summer hurricane season. Its farewell was commemorated by The Herald with an editorial cartoon of the donkey sailing off into the sunset in July, 2004. 

Pivi 2.jpg

Courtesy of The Brown Daily Herald

Toward Diversity 

The Public Art Committee now seeks to work toward a more diverse, inclusive collection of art from local and Indigenous artists, a gradual expansion from classic sculptures of antiquity that have been subject to critique from student groups. 

In 2020, in response to“Brown University Statues and Monuments Town Hall,” which discussed the committee’s proposal to repair and relocate the one-armed Caesar Augustus statue, student group Decolonization@Brown questioned whether the statue should be kept on exhibit around campus at all, arguing that the artwork had implications of white supremacy and Western imperialism, The Herald previously reported

With discourse surrounding Brown’s public art growing increasingly vigorous over recent years, Neumann noted, it was important that the committee recognize the need to diversify public art presented on campus. The committee has since then commissioned artists from various backgrounds. 

Kevin Beasley’s piece, “Untitled (Dyed Phoenix),” now stands in the John Hay Library, open to the public. There is more artwork commissioned for the spring of 2022, Neumann said, including those from Njaimeh Njie, the Edward Mitchell Bannister artist-in-residence at the John Nicholas Brown Center, Jazzmen Lee-Johnson and Deborah Spears Moorehead

With the influx of contemporary works that attempt to acknowledge increasing values for diversity and historical consciousness, it’s worth considering how the role of public art has evolved since Caesar Augustus’ arrival in 1906. As a newer member of the Brown community and Public Art Working group, Avery Willis Hoffman emphasized her excitement about the ways in which public art can operate in a community-building capacity. It is important to consider how the art on campus might represent “the diversity of the student body, faculty, and staff, Providence, and the region,” she wrote in an email to The Herald.

“I believe it is important for us to engage our community in conversations about the strategic locations for these artworks, as well as the different kinds of interpretive panels and layers of context we might provide to generate informed conversation and spark vigorous discussion.”


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