How to Borrow Works by Famous Artists for Your Home
When I speak to painters who tell me their work is made to be “lived with,” it’s an envy-inducing provocation: Most of the time, the work is laughably out of my price range. If the best artworks encourage long, leisurely viewings, it can feel like the most rewarding aesthetic experiences are only possible for serious collectors with significant disposable incomes.
Art-lending programs around the country are addressing this dilemma. From a library in Pennsylvania to a campus in Massachusetts, a handful of public and private institutions are attempting to make art ownership more democratic. Participants can essentially check out artworks and hang them in their own homes to ponder, enjoy, and return to day after day, for months at a time.
At the Braddock Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania, locals can borrow artwork with a library card, thanks to artist collective Transformazium. As their contribution to the 2013 Carnegie International exhibition (hosted every few years by Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art), the group established an art-lending collection that hangs on standing racks within the building. They intended for the project to extend long past the exhibition’s close. Over 200 works are available to check out, many from artists who exhibited in the Carnegie International—including just under $1 million at auction.
Yet Transformazium wants to make an even larger impact on their community than just offering opportunities to live with art. “We wanted to be able to hire people from our neighborhood who we see as cultural producers,” says collective member Dana Bishop-Root. “Artwork is the relationship between the artist and the artwork, and the artwork and the viewers.” The group created three part-time “arts and culture facilitator” jobs. The employees generate programming and educate library patrons about the collection. For instance, one leads a discussion group, using artworks to discuss social justice issues.
Bishop-Root also wants the lending library to develop a new model of art valuation. She and her team give each incoming work a $100 value for insurance purposes, should it be lost or stolen. Bishop-Root wonders if the actual value relates to how popular each piece is. She asks: “Does the work that circulates the most accrue the most value? Does the artwork that circulates the least have the least value?” So far, no work has been stolen or lost—a testament to good faith in the community.
In fact, when I spoke to two other lending programs at universities, neither of them had experienced any theft, either (a wonder, as pawning a single piece could seriously help combat student loan debts). Both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Chicago trust their co-eds to temporarily take care of works that can range from a
“In the post-war era, there was a specific focus on broadening cultural activities on campus,” says Mark Linga, communications coordinator at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. In 1977, the university initiated a lending program, loaning works from the graphic arts collection of Catherine Stratton (the co-founder of the MIT Arts Committee and wife of an MIT president). Each fall, the university mounts an exhibition in the campus’s List Center. Undergraduate and graduate students cycle through, then enter a lottery to take home the artwork of their choice.
Over the years, alumni and donor support enlarged the collection—650 artworks currently circulate, including a significant selection of black-and-white sculpture for the campus) and those by
At the University of Chicago, the process is a little rowdier. In 2017, the campus’s Smart Museum of Art revived a first-come, first-served “Art to Live With” program that was initiated in 1958. In October, the institution hosts a party and collection-viewing. Students begin lining up outside the museum on the evening that the show closes. They camp out all night, then select their works in the morning. They can choose lithographs by
“We want to rethink how a collection in a 21st-century art museum can really engage students,” says Emily Edwards, the program’s registration and programming coordinator. Together, the students establish how “to grow a collection and tell a story across geographic and temporal scopes.” Last year, the group acquired 10 works, including a
Williams College (where you can rent a handwoven Nez Percé bag or a
If you’re not currently enrolled at a university with such a program, your best bet is probably a community center in a smaller city. In Minneapolis, three local artists—Mac Balentine, Julia Caston, and Larsen Husby—initiated the Minneapolis Art Lending Library (MALL) in 2013, located in a private home that converted its dining room into a gallery space. The collection predominantly features work by local artists, including Teresa Audet, John Bell, and renowned photographer
Other opportunities abound. The Youngstown Cultural Art Center maintains a small collection in the Delridge neighborhood of southwest Seattle. The city of Houston, Texas, has its own Lawndale Lending Library where you can check out up-to-the-minute, socially oriented work: The current catalogue offers BRAVERY IS CONTAGIOUS, a 2018 work by Texas-based artist Sarah Fisher that depicts the face of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and a bold yellow background in graphite, Sharpie, and stickers on canvas. Additionally, both the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and the Akron Art Museum run their own art-lending libraries. If you don’t live in any of these cities, you may want to consider moving to Europe: The United Kingdom and Germany both house significant programs. Living with a painting is about more than just status-signaling or interior decoration. It’s about integrating art and life, and finding meaning, nuance, and beauty in the everyday.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.