Alumna Expresses Concern About Building Projects

Emily Stein, OC '05

To the Editor:

A graduate of Oberlin College, Ellen Johnson, joined the Art History faculty in 1939. During her tenure, Johnson brought important works of art and architecture to Oberlin College. When she passed in 1992, Johnson’s lasting, visionary legacy was marked by modern masterworks: the Robert Venturi addition to the Allen Memorial Art Museum and a Frank Lloyd Wright home that she bequeathed to the College. Ellen Johnson refreshed a tradition of aesthetic awareness at Oberlin College that I believe has fallen dangerously dormant.

Over the course of the next few years, we have an opportunity to revive these great visions that have endured at our institution, as we expand and enhance our architectural landscape with the addition of a new athletics center and a mixed-use complex to replace the Oberlin Inn. To my knowledge, so far only an engineering firm has been retained for the Inn project. Is there a notable architect at the helm of either of these upcoming projects? Are there plans to engage an internationally recognized architect? Additionally, has Oberlin considered activating a half percent, one percent, or even more of these new construction budgets to be used for the acquisition of new artworks or installations?

Case Western Reserve University, just 40 miles to our northeast, recently built their Weatherhead School of Management, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry. Sited nearby, within University Circle, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland just opened their new space designed by internationally recognized architect Farshid Moussavi. These two new buildings have not only provided their institutions with functional spaces; they invested in architects who could manipulate space in transformative ways. Gehry and Moussavi also put these institutions on a global map, one that drives excitement, interest, awareness and the big “P”— patronage.

In 2005, Rice University’s president activated a half percent of the university’s budget for art, allowing Rice to create a public art program that has, to date, commissioned and acquired more than 14 significant works of art for the campus. Among these works is James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany skyspace, a space that manipulates light through the use of LED and natural light. It seats 120 people and has drawn over 40,000 visitors to the Rice University campus since it opened in June of 2012. This work, commissioned by an aluma who was excited about the new art program, has inspired other alumi to come back to the Rice campus to experience this work of art, and it has re-engaged them with the University. Rice is just one example. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, San Diego, have also activated building funds for the purchase of art. Art, that I argue, has elevated these campuses, has had transformative effects on the students who attend these universities and has again inspired patronage.

I ask Oberlin’s administration and board, as well as the current students of Oberlin, to consider what Oberlin College could be with world-class architects on both or even one of these upcoming projects. Consider what this would do for our college, how it would re-engage alums and drive significant patronage. And, with the Inn being situated “in town,” what broader positive impact could this have on the city of Oberlin?

How are we honoring the vision of great alumi like Ellen Johnson, whose aesthetic investments left an enduring legacy for our institution? Are we doing just enough to stay relevant, or should we be doing much more?