How to Borrow Works by Famous Artists for Your Home
Photo by Cassandra Rodriguez. Courtesy of MIT List Visual Arts Center.
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 Henry Taylor, Phyllida Barlow, Sadie Benning, and Wade Guyton. It’s a high-profile group; this past year, for instance, one of Taylor’s artworks sold for just under $1 million at auction.
MIT List Visual Arts Center, Student Lending Art Program Exhibition and Lottery, 2018. Photo by Cassandra Rodriguez. Courtesy of MIT List Visual Arts Center.
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 Pablo Picasso print to a Claes Oldenburg silkscreen to a Cindy Sherman photograph.
“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 Berenice Abbott photographs. Students in theory and art programs, says Linga, are attracted to more conceptual works by Sarah Sze (who has also created a permanent sculpture for the campus) and those by Adrian Piper, while other students can find prints by Alexander Calder. The collection includes a set of instructions by Sol LeWitt, entitled Wall Drawing #869B, which require a student to create the physical piece. (The Sol LeWitt Estate loans the instructions to the school, and students must paint over their iterations—and provide documentation—at the end of their rental period.)
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 Marc Chagall, Sam Francis, Fernand Léger, and Henry Moore. Indeed, many of the pieces (a majority of which are prints) in the original collection date back to the 1960s or earlier. The museum has established a student advisory committee to acquire new pieces. Throughout the school year, those students receive professional training—they go on studio visits, speak with Chicago-based artists, attend openings, learn how to negotiate a museum discount, and write and defend their own acquisition proposals.
Williams student with art loan. Photo courtesy of the Williams College Museum of Art.
“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 Takashi Murakami lithograph, a Pope.L drawing, a Gordon Parks photograph, and an Alison Saar etching. Each is now available to hang in the dormitories.
Williams College (where you can rent a handwoven Nez Percé bag or a Hans Hartung lithograph), Oberlin College (which will loan you a Renoir etching, lithograph, or watercolor), and Kenyon College (where a Kay Rosen silkscreen and an Ann Hamilton archival inkjet print are on offer) also boast similar art-lending programs. At Williams, each artwork has its own journal that student borrowers add to year after year; the diaries become records of varying perspectives on what it’s like to live with the same piece of art. The university posts a selection of excerpts online. “Read to the Rosenquist every night before bed,” reads one scrawl that accompanies an editioned James Rosenquist print called Hot Lake (2nd State) (1978). “This work was just what I needed—a still moment of resistance,” wrote another student who nabbed a David Hockney print depicting a woman praying in the face of a dangerous, knife-wielding man.
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 Alec Soth.
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.