What Happens to a University’s Art Lending Program in a Pandemic?

May 11, 2020 5:28 pm

A Q & A with Lisa DeLong, registrar at the MIT List Visual Arts Center:

How long have you been at the List Center and what are your main responsibilities?I started here in 2017, after working as the assistant registrar at the Cincinnati Art Museum. I oversee the installation and conservation of our growing public art collection and manage both the student and faculty/staff lending programs. We also install art in libraries and other common spaces on campus.

How many students typically borrow an artwork?Normally, over nine hundred participate in the lottery system, and we end up lending six hundred pieces each year. Each September we install all the works salon-style in our galleries so the students can see everything. Each person can select up to five options; usually they’ll be issued one of their top choices. Occasionally, there isn’t a match, and students can choose from the remaining works available on the last day. Then we have a week where students come to pick up their art, and we issue loan contracts.

Are there rules, like “you can’t hang this photo in your bathroom”?Yes, absolutely. We outline all the stipulations as clearly as possible. We also give them hanging guidelines and provide hardware. We explain what to do if you have brick walls, and how to take care of the art.

What are some recent acquisitions?Alicja Kwade and Nick Mauss, who are both featured in our public art collection, are new to the student lending program. In 2018 we acquired an untitled print by Mauss and Eine Woche, a brass-on-cardboard work by Kwade. Last year we added a work by Kapwani Kiwanga—Greenbook: Massachusetts (1961), 2019—who had a show at the List Center last spring. It’s part of a series of pages from the 1920s guidebook geared toward African American travelers.

Are there certain artworks that are always in students’ top five?It’s interesting to see what’s popular year to year. We’ve been tracking this data since we started the online lottery in 2014. We have a Picasso print in the collection that has historically been a favorite. There’s also a written set of instructions for a Sol LeWitt wall drawing, which provides a student the opportunity to be part of the artistic process. And many students seek out artists with a Boston connection, like Sarah Sze. In general, abstract pieces are more popular than, say, portraiture.

Have you had problems with things getting lost or damaged?Lost, no. Sometimes we have a few stragglers. Any damage is very minor, like a slipped hinge. Things like that are bound to happen with such an active collection. All in all, the program has been very successful.

Have you noticed this program sparking an interest in art?Some students contact me years later, asking how they can acquire something similar to the artwork they borrowed as a student. So last year we had a program for students who were interested in learning how to build an art collection. And we expanded our installation instructions; there’s been more interest in museum operations.

So! What happened when undergrads suddenly had to leave campus in mid-March due to COVID-19?As soon as MIT sent the email, we immediately prepared for students to drop off their artworks in the coming days. We realized that not everyone would be able to come to the building before leaving town, so we worked with housing and residential services to secure some of the artworks in the dorms until we could assemble a small staff to go pick them up. Students living off campus and grad students staying on campus were able to keep their art in their apartments.

What other parts of your job have been impacted?We’re still trying to figure out how to move forward with our spring and summer shows. We’ve been working on more online engagement strategies. We also have over seventy public artworks on campus; how do we keep eyes on those while campus has gone quiet? This crisis was unexpected, but the experience showed what we can accomplish when we come together as a community. That was one positive.

—As told to Leigh Anne Miller


This article appears in the May 2020 issue, p. 80.