Art Rental Needs to Address Accessibility Concerns

 In light of the recent changes to Fourth Meal, many students are hoping to preserve the few remaining campuswide traditions at Oberlin. Art Rental, which is completely student-run, is arguably one of the most celebrated, anticipated events of every semester — and has been for the past 80 years. Given the longevity of the tradition, the pure wonderment that it offers, and its frequent promotion by the Office of Admissions, Art Rental should provide a more accessible opportunity for all students to rent a piece of art from the expansive and ever-changing collection at the Allen Memorial Art Museum.

Founded in 1940 by Professor of Modern Art Ellen Johnson, OC ’33, Art Rental provides students with the opportunity to rent artworks from the Allen’s collection for the entire semester at only $5 apiece. Remarkably, in Art Rental’s long history, no piece of art has ever been lost, damaged, or stolen. 

The museum will open its doors tomrrow morning at 8 a.m. — but students have already begun preparing for Art Rental. Traditionally, students camp out to put their names on the list that will cement their place in line and bolster their chances to rent their favorite artworks as early as Wednesday night, before the list is posted. This semester, the Art Students Committee advertised that a member would post the list between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. Friday. 

In an attempt to increase transparency about Art Rental, the ASC posted flyers on Facebook and across campus laying out details regarding the check-ins, as well as shared recent additions to the Art Rental experience — including a digital lottery and a late-night costume contest, both of which will allow winning students to jump higher on the list.

While we respect and appreciate the changes to Art Rental carried out by the ASC this past semester, we also believe that certain improvements can be made to Art Rental as a whole to increase accessibility for all students and to ensure that the uniquely Oberlin event is properly preserved for future generations of Obies. 

We see the check-in system as Art Rental’s greatest accessibility challenge. The nature of the system forces students to attend at least four of the six check-ins throughout Friday night to preserve their standing on the list, and because these are often loud, cramped gatherings, it places students in potentially uncomfortable or harmful positions. 

Additionally, these check-ins are only offered in the vicinity of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, which is quite a trek from the northern- and southern-most dorms on campus. Instead of making these check-ins required, it might be more considerate to host optional events throughout the evening in the Allen courtyard. For example, events like the costume contest that was instituted last year — or perhaps a concert or an open mic of some kind — could effectively preserve the camaraderie that comes with spending the evening in the courtyard in the name of art, but not force students into uncomfortable situations.

In a similar vein, the list system also presents challenges to students’ health by infringing on their sleep patterns. Frankly, the notion of asking students to wait for a list to be posted between 5 and 8 a.m. on a Friday is unnecessary when it is much easier for students to plan for an early morning wakeup call on a weekend as opposed to a weekday. Between students studying late or having an early class — or simply not wanting to get up before the crack of dawn — many students are deterred from attempting to score a high place on the list. 

An unfortunate reality, too, is that some students, after they endure all the hullabaloo involved with the list and check-ins, still do not walk away with any art. Last fall, the Review reported that over 340 students lined up to rent artworks from the museum’s collection of 381 pieces (“New Approach to Art Rental Attracts Record Number of Students,” Sept. 20 2019). 

This higher-than-normal turnout was doubtlessly related to the work undertaken by ASC to increase transparency about the Art Rental process. However, due to the policy that allows students to rent two pieces or more at a time, many students who waited in line for hours went home empty-handed. We propose a system wherein students can only rent one artwork per cycle in line. In other words, students can still rent upwards of two pieces — but only if they’re willing to get back in line after renting their first-choice piece. 

Although we agree that it would be hard to pick just one piece to rent — and concur that Art Rental should reward students who take the time to get a good spot in line — we think that this change would allow more students to participate in Art Rental. 

A campus tradition can only truly thrive if students are excited and have personal buy-in; we know this is true based on recent campus discussions with our fellow fourth-years who have watched the slow demise of a tradition that we remember fondly from our first year at Oberlin: Fourth Meal. 

Students who are turned away at Art Rental due to the museum running out of pieces to rent will likely have one of two reactions: The die-hards, though disappointed, might try again in a future semester, but we are certain that many Oberlin students will be discouraged from ever going through the trouble of participating again. 

The ASC is currently working to institutionalize some of the changes made to Art Rental so that future iterations of the committee have a codified process long after the current committee members have graduated. Thus, right now is the perfect time to make meaningful improvements to Art Rental.