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Is It Art?

Innovation invites skepticism in science and art.

When MIT installed a sculpture next to the East Campus dorms in late 1975, the reaction was decidedly mixed. Some students expressed their feelings about Louise Nevelson’s Transparent Horizon by painting its black metal with bright colors, burying it in snow several times, and covering it with toilet paper, pumpkins, and cardboard boxes.

The sculpture touched off a debate that lasted for years. In the months before Transparent Horizon came to MIT, student interest in campus art had been so low that the Committee on the Visual Arts hadn’t been able to fill its two student spots. But soon after the sculpture’s arrival, editorials and letters in the Tech began asking whether art matters and how to define it. One advocated relocating the sculpture; another called the vandals artists in their own right.

[For photos of public art installations on campus, click here.]

“Continually updating the notion of what art is by adding new pieces keeps that dialogue alive on campus, which is an important part of the educational experience,” says Patricia Fuller, public-art curator at the List Visual Arts Center. “MIT is about cutting-edge discoveries, and it seems appropriate to have that all across the board, not just in the sciences but in the humanities and in the arts.”

One of about 50 works of public art on campus, Transparent Horizon came to MIT as part of a funding program called Percent-for-Art, under which 1 percent of the budget for each major construction project since 1968 has been used to commission or buy public art. (There’s now a $250,000 cap on purchases.) The program was first suggested in late 1961 by the newly formed MIT Art Committee, coorganized by President Julius Stratton’s wife, Catherine. MIT’s art collection “should represent in art what MIT represents in science,” the committee believed. “It should be contemporaneous and courageous. … It should demonstrate that MIT is part of the modern world and conscious of the forces which stir it.” Today, Percent-for-Art commissions are selected by a committee, chaired by the List Visual Arts Center director, that includes affected students and staff.

“When [works of public art] first arrive, they’re often regarded as an intrusion,” says William Arning, curator of the List gallery. “But eventually they become part of the fabric of the campus.” As students who are unhappy with an installation graduate, they are often replaced by others who accept it as part of their space and enjoy it.

Even one of MIT’s most beloved sculptures, Alexander Calder’s La Grande Voile (The Big Sail), was regarded with suspicion when it was built next to the Green Building in 1965. The sculpture’s 33 tons of steel are balanced on four relatively thin legs, yet it looks playful and light. With its intersecting planes, it resembles a spiny beetle from some angles; from others, it indeed looks like a sail.

Fuller recalls that the initial response to the sculpture was often something like, “What is this? It isn’t art.” Today, the Calder is viewed as an integral part of McDermott Court. A campus myth holds that it was designed to control the notorious wind there; but while a small model of La Grande Voile was indeed tested in MIT’s wind tunnel, it was only to make sure the sculpture would be stable. “After all, no one wanted it to blow away,” recalls Stuart Dawson, a landscape architect who worked on McDermott Court. “Inexpensive bathroom scales were purchased, one for each foot,” he says. “In the wind tunnel, it was tested with varying winds and, by rotation, from varying quarters. Pretty Buck Rogers technique for one amazing institution!”

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