More than Matisse: Art Rental Continues to Broaden Arts Exposure

Rachel Mead

The Art Rental Program at the Allen Memorial Art Museum has been active for over 75 years, allowing students to rent pieces of art from the museum’s collection every semester for only $5 each. Professor of Modern Art Ellen Johnson, OC ’33, founded the program based on her dedication to bringing people closer to art, according to AMAM Registrar Lucille Stiger. Johnson believed that “if people lived with art, they would develop a greater appreciation for it,” Stiger said.

This rings true for Kevin Lin, OC ’17, who has participated in Art Rental every semester he’s been at Oberlin. “It’s a daily, constant reminder. You can pay as much attention to it as you want, but by having it in your day-to-day life, it makes art less unapproachable. I like the idea that I don’t have to be some artsy person who studies it in order to appreciate it and that it’s open to all students, whereas a lot of art courses here are hard to get into if you’re not already experienced in the arts.”

One of Lin’s favorite pieces that he’s rented is Station, by Janet Passehl, which is composed of several perpendicular pencil lines on a large piece of white paper. He said that some people had extreme reactions to the drawing that he didn’t expect. “You can learn a lot about your friends,” said Lin. “People don’t really discuss art with their friends that much because it’s not always out in the open, but with Art Rental it can happen with people who aren’t really invested in art in their everyday lives. I didn’t know people would be so emotionally negative about this piece, and I found it really fascinating.” Another is Beth Van Hoesen’s Bugs. “It’s this fat, creamy cat that your rich auntie might have, with brilliant azure blue eyes lying on a detailed Oriental rug. There’s something about it that’s so kitschy, and I see myself in it. It’s flailing, helpless, an animal on its back in a world of beauty, and it’s like, ‘Where am I? Do I deserve how lush this rug is?’ I called it cookie dough cat.”

When the Art Rental Program appears in the national media, the headlines always mention the Picassos, Matisses and Chagalls that students can take home to their dorm rooms. That’s also the way Oberlin itself advertises the program on its website and in mailings to potential applicants. However, the focus of the Art Rental Collection is on new and upcoming artists. Johnson’s original idea was to expose more people to art, a goal which doesn’t require a cache of great names like Renoir and Monet so much as a commitment to pieces and artists who are novel and different.

“I think if you come in to take a specific piece only for the prestige of the name, that misses the point and the spirit of Art Rental,” Lin said. “Part of the wonder of the program is the discovery process — sorting through a haystack of art works all leaning against one another. At this point I usually go in without looking at anything online ahead of time, because seeing them in person is so vastly different.”

Of course, it helps that pieces like black-and-white The Sherwood Diaspora and Grand Parade by Oberlin-based woodblock artist and woodblock Winter Term teacher Claudio Orso-Giacone are not particularly well-known, because it means that their prices are below the museum’s insurance deductible. Stiger says that even the museum pieces in the College President’s house are from the Art Rental Collection and that Permanent Collection pieces are never lent out to anyone. This is only a precaution on the part of the AMAM, though, because there haven’t been any issues with poor stewardship of the works. “Students do an excellent job with the responsibility of taking care of the art,” Stiger said. “This is my 39th or 40th Art Rental, and although we’ve had some frame damage from pieces falling off of walls, none of the art has ever been lost, stolen, or damaged.”

Beginning Saturday at 8 a.m., students will be admitted to the AMAM to choose the pieces they want to live with until December. In past semesters, people have begun to line up starting a full 24 hours ahead of time. “Some people put their names on a list starting Friday at noon or so,” said Lin. “I’ve done that, but I’ve also had semesters where I show up the morning of. You can find so much stuff that’s still there, and I’ve been happy with what I’ve gotten.” Cara Forster, OC ’16, said that last year she got up to go to the museum at the “ass crack of dawn,” and that even though the people behind her in line left empty-handed, she walked away very pleased with Orso-Giacone’s woodblock print. “It would be nice if Safety and Security lent dollies or something, since the pieces can be heavy, but other than lugging my pieces home I had a great experience,” Forster said. The physically taxing parts of the Art Rental process, including sleeping there overnight, walking back several times to show up for roll call, and carrying heavy framed paintings, are questionable parts of the “experience.” Not everyone is able to do these tasks, and some disabled students feel discouraged from taking part in renting pieces because of this.

“I think all students should participate at least once,” said Stiger. “It’s a rite of passage, and I think if you can’t say you did it, you’ll have missed out.” Stiger follows her own advice — this summer, she rented Jeff Way’s Elvis Study, a collage portrait of Elvis comprised of layered color Xeroxes on a black background, and Konstantin Kalinovich’s Little Winter Dutchman, an etching of a man with a large, frilly collar populated by tiny ice-skating figures. For these — and more — all you have to do is show up Saturday morning with $5 in cash (or check) and an open mind.