The recent expansion of the Olin Business School includes a significant new sculpture by the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. Located outside the south entrance of the new Bauer Hall atrium, Ainsa I is a large-scale seated human figure comprised of a filigree of stainless steel letters from nine different alphabets. Plensa's work embodies the diversity that characterizes Olin and the University at large. It also transforms the experience of its site, offering both a new focal point and a transition between human and architectural scale, while calling attention to the essentially communal nature of the building plaza.
Ainsa I represents the inaugural commission for Art on Campus, a percent-for-art program that establishes a significant presence for public art at Washington University while it builds on the University's world-class collection of art. Created in 2010, Art on Campus commissions art in connection with new construction and renovation projects across the Danforth Campus and at select University-owned off-campus locations.
This spring also marks the installation of an Art on Campus commission by Brooklyn-based artist Spencer Finch, who records the visible world while simultaneously striving to understand what lies beyond it. For his site-specific project East Meets West, Finch traveled to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, where he used a colorimeter—a device that measures the average color and temperature of light that exists naturally in a specific place and time—to calculate the color of the light on the oceans. He also made watercolors that reproduce his personal observations of the colors and shapes of waves. Combining the empirical qualities of technology and the subjective nature of painting, Finch created light boxes that produce an aesthetic experience of the fleeting, temporal nature of the observed world. Installed in Karl D. Umrath Hall, home to a variety of interdisciplinary humanities programs, East Meets West evokes the complexities of humanistic and scientific efforts to comprehend the outside world.
Other upcoming installations include a work by Istanbul- and Berlin-based Ayse Erkmen for Samuel Cupples Hall II. Currently, Art on Campus is negotiating artworks for capital projects including the new Preston M. Green Hall; the Brown School expansion; the Gary and Rachel Sumers Recreation Center; and the Rubelmann House renovation.
Inspired by several of his National Council members, Sam Fox School Dean Carmon Colangelo has been the driving force behind the development of Art on Campus. When he began researching university public art programs to prepare a proposal for Washington University, two examples stood out: UC San Diego's venerable Stuart Collection, which is largely the work of a single curator, director Mary Beebe; and MIT's Percent-for-Art program, which dates from the 1960s and has produced a collection of more than 50 major works on campus.
"From a policy standpoint, MIT's model made sense, since it is inclusive of many stakeholders—the users of the building—having a say in the process," Colangelo explains.
Leslie Markle, the Kemper Art Museum's inaugural curator for public art, notes that the artist selection process benefits from the variety of voices. "The collaborative process for the program, which affects everything from the selection of the artists and works to the sites, mirrors the interdisciplinary character of public art and the Sam Fox School itself, which incorporates the units of art, architecture, and the Museum," Markle says.
All Art on Campus commissions will be accessioned into the Museum's collection and maintained according to strict museum standards. But as site-specific public pieces, Markle notes, the Art on Campus works function differently from any other pieces in the collection; they are designed to engage their individual buildings and sites.
"One of our tasks is to create functional and memorable spaces," says Hank Webber, the University's executive vice chancellor for administration. Toward that end, the works will lend individual identity to sites and contribute to wayfinding, an important function on the Danforth Campus, where the more recent architecture remains largely consistent with the Gothic revival style of the original Cope and Stewardson designs of the early 1900s.
Beyond this, the works commissioned through Art on Campus are intended to initiate dialogue on the built environment itself, and the nature and use of shared space. The work proposed by Erkman is sure to be a case in point. The artist has proposed several large, monolithic, crystalline forms clad in green mosaic tile, to be positioned on the lawn joining Cupples II and John M. Olin Library. The forms possess a playful ambiguity—are they natural or constructed? Are they ruins, or are they fully functional? Sculpture or furniture? Neither or both? Their indeterminate status is precisely their strength, as they invite any number of interpretations and uses.
While the program's greatest impact will be felt at the University level, Art on Campus strives in various ways to connect with the wider community. This is exemplified by the plans for The Lofts of Washington University, a mixed-use project for student housing, retail, open plazas, and green space in the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood and on the Delmar Loop, for which the American artist Pae White has been selected to propose a publicly accessible outdoor work for the project’s south mews.
"We are a part of St. Louis," Webber says. "We're stronger by our connections. We're hoping that the program is not just a campus amenity, but that this is part of a larger strategy, a linked set of urban spaces with art."
Colangelo adds, "I think of these works as part of an arts corridor, reaching from the Arch, Citygarden, and Twain, to Grand Center, the Pulitzer and the Contemporary Art Museum, spanning west to Laumeier Sculpture Park, returning back to the Saint Louis Art Museum, and in the process knitting together all of the neighborhoods, which are huge assets in St. Louis. A large part of the Art on Campus program is its contribution to the cultural wealth of the city."
Jaume Plensa, Ainsa I, 2013. Stainless steel and limestone, 126 x 84 5/8 x 149 5/8". Installation view, Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Art on Campus fund, Olin Business School, 2013. Photo by James Byard.
Spencer Finch, detail of East Meets West (Atlantic), 2014. Two light boxes with Fujitrans prints and Plexiglas, 50 x 78 x 4" each. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Art on Campus fund, Karl D. Umrath Hall, 2014.