Student Art for Student Space: A Call for Public Art

“Remorse, Despondence, and the Acceptance of an Early Death,” a senior thesis project by Graydon Parrish '99. A less-than-optimal placement for one remarkable exception to the campus's dearth of student art.

Amherst College’s aesthetic is one mired in tradition, stability, and coherence. Our squat, boxy buildings frame a collection of grass quadrangles; red-bricked right angles create a Neoclassical foil to the surrounding forests and hills; our campus is a bastion of order in rugged terrain. Terras Irradient, translated into dorms and lawns.

As a result, Amherst’s campus does not lend itself well to public art, especially contemporary work which, nearly by definition, eludes such a singular, ordered program. Public art–which belongs not to museum archives or private collectors but to the community that encounters it–is rare at Amherst. Public art by student artists is nearly absent. One remarkable exception is “Remorse, Despondence, and the Acceptance of an Early Death,” a visual elegy to the AIDS epidemic that Graydon Parrish ‘99 completed as a senior thesis project. Purchased by Amherst trustees who recognized the importance of adding student work to the College’s art collection, it now lives in Frost, in a lounge overlooking Webster Circle.

Rilke in B-level
Rilke in B-level

The passages of literature transcribed in Frost’s basement bathrooms–not the result of a major art project, but a harmless act of literary vandalism–serve a similar function. By adding something creative to look at in a place that’s otherwise routinely ignored, these artistic interventions disrupt the inertia of the everyday. They activate a passive viewer into interaction with the space and provoke critical thought about the content’s relationship to its site. They make boring rooms interesting.

But, more importantly, this work is produced by students who, in these gestures, assert a small degree of authorship over their environment. By responding to its physical structure, they assume agency over the Amherst College experience. It’s no surprise that the Marsh common rooms feel more “homey” than the ones in Hitchcock. A feeling of ownership over the campus we inhabit is crucial in generating “place” from “space,” and making that place feel like home.

Consider the Powerhouse. Our institutional leaders approved its renovation in an effort to make substantial changes to the increasingly urgent problem of student life. Since its inauguration, the building has largely been considered a success. We primarily use it on weekends, and almost always at night, but nearly everything hosted in the Powerhouse has welcomed large crowds.

The building was designed, however, with little to no student input. The administration felt compelled to act fast, but did so at the expense of student voice. As a result, the architecture of the Powerhouse orchestrates a specific spatial experience that was engineered by them for us. It’s a necessarily transient space: at the conclusion of an event, organizers must immediately clean it up. We return it to the pristine condition in which it was given to us–as if nothing had happened.

This kind of situation and these kinds of spaces beg student response, and what better than public art by Amherst students? An aesthetic intervention in the Powerhouse would survive through weekday mornings and idle afternoons when the building is not in use. It would remain a student social space, even when there’s no socializing actively happening. To really claim student ownership over a space constantly lauded as a student-run, amendments to the structure are needed, and need to be permanent.

A mission statement provides an institution with a general sense of purpose. A budget focuses this purpose into action items. But architecture is where the action happens. It’s the embodiment of the institution in real-space and real-time. An invitation for public art by students–for the Powerhouse specifically, or for the campus at large–would be a small act in establishing us, the primary consumers of this built environment, as the authors of its action. An annual fund for student art would provide a necessary budget for implementation. But it would also be an indication of administrative approval–maybe even encouragement–to color the campus with student creativity, and make this a place we can call our own.

UCLA has committed up to $200,000 to implement student art on campus.
UCLA has committed up to $200,000 to implement student art on campus.