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    Inside Art Rental
    by Betty Gabrielli

February 16, 2004
Student selecting artwork at the Allen Memorial Art Museum
 
   
Oberlin's Art Rental program is as popular now as it was 64 years ago, when it was founded by the late art-world luminary Ellen Johnson, Oberlin professor of art history.

Every semester, like clockwork, students gather in the Allen Memorial Art Museum to preview then rent the more than 400 works—by artists such as Monet, Picasso, Andy Warhol and Nan Goldin—in the rental collection.

"As a teenager I had hoped to become an evangelist, and I have certainly spread the gospel of art all my working life," Ellen Johnson said in her art memoirs, Fragments Recalled at Eighty.

"If students could have works of art in their dormitory rooms," she wrote, "it would not only develop their aesthetic sensibilities but might encourage ordered thinking and discrimination even in other areas of their lives."

Andy Campbell, a senior from Austin, Texas, and a repeat renter, heartily agrees.

"I first heard of the art rental when I was a prospective student, and it was one of the deciding factors that led me to enroll," says Campbell, who is majoring in art history, gender and women studies, and theater.

"The students are entrusted with the art for so little, and virtually no works have been damaged. I think that's absolutely incredible.

"A lot of people go immediately for the Andy Warhol or Picasso but I like to rent works by less well-known artists," he says. "It's more the actual image than the name that really speaks to me.

"The first piece I rented was a framed Japanese fan by the Japanese American artist Yasumasa Morimura. It was a kind of Cindy Sherman-like photograph of the artist dressed as Marilyn Monroe transposed onto a paper fan. What intrigued me initially was the work's juxtaposition of Western pop culture and an Eastern traditional medium."

Two of the works by bigger names rented by Campbell were an engraving of Oscar Wilde's writings by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and a photograph by Nan Goldin titled Suzanne and Phillipe on the Train, Long Island, 1985.

"I love the Goldin photograph because of the saturated green color and the positions of the two people: Suzanne is cradling Phillipe's head and staring straight into the camera.

"Gallery dealers and collectors will tell you that above and beyond value, reputation, etc., it has to be the art itself that you really connect with," Campbell says. "It's one thing to go into a museum, view the art, and then leave. It's a completely different thing to live with works on the cutting edge.

Most of the works Campbell has rented also have been jumping-off points for learning more about the artists and their milieu and sharing what he's learned with other students, as Johnson intended. "Friends come in and say, 'That's really cool,' and I say, 'oh yeah, let me tell you a little about it.'

"Johnson believed art would encourage students and inspire them to learn more," he adds. "I think in many ways she achieved that."

This semester, Johnson's evangelizing will continue with the preview, Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; the student art rental, Thursday frin 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and open rental for students, members of the faculty, administration, and community, Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
    
   
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