Art for Everyone's Sake
by James Rettig
Art for Everyone's Sake by James Rettig Museum-library collaboration can be very rewarding. At the national level, the Institute for Museum and Library Services rewards these partnerships in its grant programs. On the local level, library-museum collaborations can enrich both institutions, with or without grant money. An ongoing partnership between the library and the art museum at the University of Richmond, initially funded internally and later expanded through a onetime foundation grant, can be a model for other colleges and universities, and perhaps even for public libraries.
During the summers of 2001, 2002, and 2003, the University of Richmond made a substantial investment to transform the public areas of Boatwright Memorial Library's two main floors. On the first floor, old banged-up furniture, space-wasting index tables holding rarely used print volumes, computer tables encircling "snake pits" of computer cables, and worn carpet collectively had an off-putting effect. On the second floor, stacks of bound periodicals firlmy anchored an expanse of very durable 1970s orange carpet. That collection continued in an adjoining room. Some of the stacks in that room stood very close to the building's front windows, denying library users the view of the campus's small lake. The work done over three summers has been as dramatic as if one of the lake's resident ducks had transformed itself into the proverbial swan.
New carpet in warm tones, computer stations designed to allow two students to roll wheeled chairs together to work collaboratively, soft chairs, new study tables, improved lighting, and fresh paint prompted new use patterns after the very first summer. At the end of the summer it wasn't uncommon for returning students to walk into the library and stop and gape at the transformed first floor and its new Research Commons. The gate count that year increased eighteen percent.
Work the next summer on the second floor opened space next to lakefront windows for soft seating and study tables, consolidated the two parts of the bound periodicals collection in an improved arrangement in one room, eliminated the notorious orange carpet, created more computer stations, and repeated in the new Upper Commons the best features of the first floor's Research Commons.
The project budget included an allowance for permanent artwork. In August 2001 the university's interior designer invited several gallery owners to come and show us paintings and prints. The librarians concluded that we are experts in librarianship, not in visual art.
In recent years the University of Richmond has been aggressively building its permanent collection of prints. The Art and Art History Department added a studio art faculty member who specializes in prints. A significant gift from an alumnus and his wife to sustain the prints collection led the university to name it the Joel and Lila Harnett Print Study Center. Given these factors and the limits of our expertise, we recommended that the allocation for permanent artwork be entrusted to Dr. Richard Waller, the executive director of University Museums, to purchase additional works for the prints collection. He, after all, is an expert in visual art.
That recommendation included two provisos. The first was that the Museums take responsibility for hanging works from the prints collection in the library. The second was that the exhibit change every six months. Dr. Waller agreed to this enthusiastically.
The arrangement benefits both the library and the Museums. For the library, the changing exhibits keep the appearance of the walls fresh. Exhibit rotation allows the museum to display more of its collections each year. Art education, in a subtle way, takes place continuously in the library. A gallery-style caption beside each work identifies its creator, title, and medium. Faculty and students appreciate the quality and thematic unity of the works on display. The arrangement between the library and the University Museums was more than a win-win deal; it was win-win-win.
The improvements made in the second year doubled the amount of wall space available for art. To build upon success, we approached a foundation with which the University of Richmond has an ongoing relationship. For some time, this foundation has made small grants each year to build up the music collections in targeted areas. In 2002, the library and museum submitted a proposal to the foundation — not for new music materials, but for funding for more acquisitions for the permanent prints collection. This would benefit the library by providing a greater range of prints for display on its walls. The benefit to the prints collection is selfevident. The proposal was funded, the prints collection has been enhanced, and the library has benefited.
The additional space available in the fall of 2002 allowed Richard Waller to diversify the sorts of works displayed. The first floor has become gallery space for faculty and student art while the second floor is a showcase for works from the prints collection. An annual gallery exhibit of student artwork has long provided exposure for students' creations. Nevertheless, among student artists the library has become the preferred venue for their works to be on display. Their friends may visit the gallery the first time just to see their work; but those friends frequent the library and will see the art more than once. (In the third year the gate count was more than 63,000 greater than in the first year.) Furthermore, since the library also has many more visitors than the galleries, students who would not otherwise see their fellow students' work not only see them, but also spend hours in their midst.
The presence of original art of high quality has enhanced the significant improvements made to library's physical environment. Furthermore, the art has an educational purpose that resonates with the library's academic mission.
Many colleges and universities have galleries and museums. In every one of them there is an opportunity for the library to initiate a mutually beneficial collaboration that will please library users. Libraries can also look beyond the horizons of their parent institution or government. At least one academic library in Virginia has a successful program in collaboration with a local art gallery to exhibit works. The library has been spared the need to find money for what some might consider a frill; the gallery is able to exhibit (and sell) more works; and the artists receive public notice. Public libraries can also help to bring art to all. They may be able to arrange similar collaborations with local art museums or galleries. If so, it will be a win-win-win situation for the library, the museum, and the public.
James Rettig is University Librarian at Boatwright Memorial Library, University of Richmond. He can be reached at email@example.com.