Phyllis McGuire: Williams College Art Museum lending program spreads art's impact

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Williams College students lined up on the patio of the Williams College Art Museum on Sept.8, wanting to take advantage of an unusual opportunity.

Starting at 9 a.m on Sept. 9, the students were ushered into the museum in groups of 15 to choose a work of art they would borrow for the semester, as participants in the Williams Art Loan for Living Space program.

The WALLS collection was assembled with the students entirely in mind and includes a wide range of artwork," said Hadley DesMeules, Interim Manager of Student and Visitor Engagement, Williams College Museum of Art. "We have an Albrecht Durer print from 1518 alongside works from living artists like Titus Kaphar and Diana Al-Hadid."

Since the inception of the WALLS program in 2014, the collection has expanded from 90 works of art to 123. The largest piece is 49 by 47 inches and the smallest is less than 10 by 10 inches.

"This semester WALLS was most popular. We had to turn away 15 students," said DesMeules.

Zach Babat, an 18-year-old sophomore from Memphis, Tenn., did not chance being turned away. He secured a good place on line at 3 p.m. Sept. 7 and slept there overnight.

"We had a good faith thing going," Babat said. He left the line to put on warmer clothing and for bathroom breaks, but regained his place when he returned.

Babat chose a work of art by Zhu Wei, a Chinese artist born in 1966. "It is an aesthetically gorgeous painting with orange and yellow hues in the background," he said. "It adds warmth to the room. I hung it on a wall across from my bed. I wake up seeing it. I enjoy it."

Javier Robelo, a freshman from Nicaragua, borrowed a piece titled "Acrobats" by American artist Alexander Calder.

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"It's definitely a challenging experience to be so far away from home in a completely new environment. The artwork by an artist I respect and admire has allowed me to truly transform my dorm room into my own space. I'm always excited to get back at the end of the day and see my WALLS piece.

"I found this piece particularly interesting because, despite it being a lithograph, instead of his usual metal structures, it dealt with the same subject of balance, which plays a central role in his iconic mobiles," said Robelo.

Even before coming to Williams College as a student, Perry Weber, Class of 2019, knew about the WALLS program.

"My brother is 3 years ahead of me in school and when he was at Williams, he told me about WALLS. He is not into art but he knew I would be interested," said the art major who enjoyed working at Sotheby Auction House in New York City last summer.

Since Weber's first year at Williams, she has borrowed artwork from the WALLS collection six times. This semester, she took away a piece of art work by British artist Rachel Whiteread.

"It is a contemporary piece in sepia tones of brown and gold," Weber said of Whiteread's work of art that consists of two photographs of light switches with wallpapered background.

"I could stare at the photographs for hours. There is a certain mystery and disassociation of the light switches to the outside world that I am still contemplating, and will continue to(do) over the course of the semester."

Each borrower is given a notebook and encouraged to write about his or her experience living with art for that semester.

"The notebooks capture in a powerful way the idea that no two people will have the exact same experience with a work of art," DesMeules said. "Every semester, the works in the WALLS collection take on new meaning and in return bring joy, inspiration, solace, comfort, and more to their borrowers."


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