Campus Plus: How Does MIT Commission Public Artists?

Sculpture Sarah Sze

Blue Poles, Sarah Sze, 2004-2006, painted steel and aluminum

In a recent interview, Alison Upitis, Assistant Curator of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s List Visual Arts Center, (LVAC), noted that it wasn’t until after World War II that MIT first committed to art on campus, reacting to a need to humanize scientists who were involved in the war effort.

MIT’s Percent-for-Art Program, formally instituted in 1968, includes big names such as Tony Smith, Sol LeWitt, Richard Fleischner, Scott Burton, Kenneth Noland, Jackie Ferrara, Candida Hofer, Sarah Sze, Matthew Ritchie, Anish Kapoor, Cai Guo-Qiang and others.

Sculpture Sarah Sze

Blue Poles, Sarah Sze, 2004-2006, painted steel and aluminum

The program allots up to $250,000 to commission art for each new major renovation or building project on campus. If you’re a public artist, you know that this is not the biggest budget out there, but the prestige of working with MIT is such that Upitis hasn’t noted any reluctance to engage. If a commissioned artist has needed more money, MIT has raised it for them.

The selection process begins when the List receives word from the administration that a building project has been given the green light. Upitis and LVAC Director Paul C. Ha create a list of about 15 artists who they think might be a good fit. They contact the artist’s gallery for images, (in rare cases, they contact the artist directly).

Upitis and Ha present the images to a selection committee that is usually made up of professors, architects and others from the school. Unlike a public Percent-For-Art panel, where the administrator manages the process but is neutral in discussion, Upitis noted “the director and I are active participants in the committee”, so MIT’s program is sharply curated, not only in the selection of the artist, but in siting the work and creating relationships between other works of art and architecture on campus.

Together, the panel chooses three or four finalists, to whom they award a small stipend that covers a site visit and proposal. After a few months, the artists present their work, often by Skype, and the committee makes its final selection.  It can often take up to five years for a commission to wend its way through the process, but if history is any benchmark, it’s worth the time. The artists that are chosen are clearly here to stay.

Sculpture Nevelson

Transparent Horizon, Louise Nevelson, welded Cor-ten steel, painted, 1975.

Most MIT Percent-For-Art commissions, as well other works of art not covered here, are open to the public.

For more information:

By Elizabeth Keithline

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