Art Rental Gets COVID-Safe Makeover

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Meg Parker

Nina Fox, OC’19, stands with her art rental piece.

Even in the face of a global pandemic, the classic Oberlin tradition of Art Rental will continue this Saturday — but with some significant changes. 

The Oberlin Art Rental was founded in 1940, 80 years ago, by Professor of Modern Art Ellen Johnson, OC 33. The program provides Obies with the opportunity to bring original art from the museum into their dorm rooms and is a major selling point for prospective students. 

“It was one of the main reasons I chose to come to Oberlin in the first place,” said Greer Hobbs, College second-year. “Where else would I get the opportunity to have a Picasso on my wall?” 

This year, however, the process will be different. Rather than allowing renters to choose from over 400 works on a first-come, first-serve basis, museum staff will present each renter with five random pieces, from which the renter may choose one. 

“We wanted to maintain this, I think it’s a signature program,” said John G. W. Cowles Director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum Andria Derstine. “It’s important for students … but obviously we had to devise new protocols because of COVID.”

This new system has some students disappointed about the absence of time-honored Art Rental traditions. 

“There is usually a camaraderie around [the line], but I think that could be threatened this year,” Hobbs said. “I could see some people deciding not to partake because it feels sort of anticlimactic.”

However, these changes may improve the program’s accessibility which has been a point of concern in the past. Last February, the Review published an Opinions piece by Devyn Malouf, OC ’20, and Katie Lucey, OC ’20, that detailed some of the hurdles students face in the traditional rental process. 

We see the check-in system as Art Rental’s greatest accessibility challenge,” Malouf and Lucey wrote. “Because these are often loud, cramped gatherings, it places students in potentially uncomfortable or harmful positions.” 

In order to abide by ObieSafe guidelines around large gatherings, the new system avoids line-formation altogether. Renters will fill out a brief art request form which they must bring with them on rental day in order to take home a piece. Since renters will choose from a random selection of works, there will be no benefit to arriving early, camping out the night before, or pushing through throngs of people to get a good spot on the check-in list. 

While some students may miss the camaraderie of pulling an art-filled all-nighter with friends, it is likely that the more laid-back process will attract some new renters this year. The AMAM has also dropped its $5 rental fee and is offering extended hours for students to pick up pieces. 

Many students are simply relieved that Art Rental is happening at all this year. 

I honestly was surprised they were going to do it. It’s an opportunity I’m so glad to have,” said College second-year Ursula Hudak. “To pick a piece of fine art, walk it to your dorm room, and have it there? It makes it more real, more personal. In a museum with many things, you shift around, look at one painting for a few minutes, then move on. Living with these pieces, you really come to love them.” 

On Saturday, Sept. 12, from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., renters will be allowed to enter the Allen Memorial Art Museum one at a time through the front door. Masks will be mandatory.