When the agreement for the Stuart Art Collection was first formalized in 1982, it promised to be a sculpture garden of “real vision” with “fresh and solid thinking behind it.” Standing in front of the plain water fountain that comprises the entirety of “Untitled” (1991) by Michael Asher, the eleventh stop on my self-led walking tour of the Stuart Art Collection, it became overwhelming clear to me that for the last three decades, the students of UC San Diego have been largely absent from this “vision” and this “thinking” and from our campus art in general. The Stuart Art Collection has removed students from consideration in selecting and presenting its pieces, making it inaccessible. In failing to provide public art that is actually intended to appeal to and represent students, the UCSD administration has taken an approach to campus art that is anti-student.
The public art positioned in UCSD has always been visually disappointing. On a campus with architecture that seems limited to unattractive rectangles and a color palette so dominated by gray, white, and tan that it encompasses even the plants, the Stuart Art Collection does little to compensate for this lack of vibrancy and color. I might be alone with this particular complaint, but the fact of the matter is that the Stuart Art Collection does not resonate with students in general. Pieces like “Sun God,” “Fallen Star,” and the neon “Virtues and Vices” are widely adored, but the consensus seems to be that much of the other sculptures are either incomprehensible or overlooked as part of the Stuart Art Collection entirely.
When “What Hath God Wrought?,” the new 195-foot pole that blinks Morse Code, was first erected, a student called campus police to report it as someone sending out an SOS signal. Students are regularly seen sitting on top of the row of limestone blocks next to Marshall Field that is “UNDA” like it’s a bench. Tour guides use the giraffe catchers myth when presenting “Two Running Violet V Forms,” the large blue fences outside the Faculty Club, instead of even attempting to explain it as art. Unrecognizable as sculptures and difficult to understand, there is a clear disconnect between students and the Stuart Art Collection as a whole.
The Stuart Art Collection also makes no attempt to improve the accessibility of its pieces for students. On its website, the Stuart Art Collection offers detailed explanations of the artists’ intentions and meanings for the pieces, but it does not make this information available at the site of each sculpture, which could easily be done with a plaque as is typical of museums. Instead, it keeps students in the dark, leaving them to view “Untitled” as the only free-standing drinking fountain on campus rather than the ironic monument of administrative environments it’s apparently meant to be.
For all the fuss the university makes about hosting the Stuart Art Collection on our campus, it has failed to provide students with an array of art that they actually understand and appreciate. Part of the disconnect is that the collection seems to favor sculptures that blend into the landscape, like the “Something Pacific” scattering of TVs outside Solis Hall, or opts for obscure pieces over more readily intelligible ones. However, the ultimate culprit is that the administrators behind the Stuart Art Collection do not actually factor student input into the art selection process and instead impose their high art standards.
The Stuart Art Collection is very transparent about how pieces are chosen for inclusion: Director Mary Beebe reaches out to artists that she believes could offer valuable additions, and then their proposals are reviewed by the Stuart Art Collection Advisory Board and ultimately sent to the chancellor for approval. At no point are students consulted, and students are not considered as potential artists for the collection.
Of the nine members of the Advisory Board, UCSD Professor of Visual Arts Kim MacConnel is the only representative actually from this university — the rest of the board is dominated by former and current museum art directors and art officials from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University. Given that the Advisory Board is essentially an assembly of experts who do not regularly interact with the collection, its neglect of student input and its ivory tower nature are unsurprising.
Even the description of the Stuart Art Collection on its own website does not make a single mention of the students, instead highlighting the notoriety of its artists and its innovation.
Although the disregard of students by the Stuart Art Collection officials is concerning, art should not pander to its audience. If the Stuart Art Collection were only one of many other sources of public art at UCSD, it would be much less of a problem with the inability of many of its pieces to appeal to students. However, the issue, and the reason why the administration as anti-student on art, is that the university makes no attempt to provide art that is actually intended to represent students or even to make the art comprehensible to the students who share its space.
The university administration relies almost entirely on the Stuart Art Collection to provide the campus with public art. Despite being in a position to supplement the Stuart Art Collection with murals and other forms of art directed at highlighting the student experience, the administration has not done so. Additionally equipped with the resources to commission student work so that student talent is visible in our campus art, the administration offers no such opportunities.
In only offering the Stuart Art Collection, the administration has failed to make space for students in campus art, both in depicting our diverse interests and backgrounds in the art itself and in the process of creating art for the campus. Pieces like the “Chicano Legacy 40 Anos” mosaic or upcoming murals in Earl Warren College and John Muir College that do seek to do this are primarily the work of the colleges and other campus organizations.
In addition to this inaction, the administration has also obstructed the efforts of other entities to diversify our public art and include students. In 2016, the University Art Gallery, which showcased student art, was shut down over the protests of the visual arts department and will be replaced with a classroom. In 2011, the students of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán had to push to make the “Chicano Legacy” mosaic a permanent fixture in the wake of the Compton Cookout racial tensions even though it had already been well-received as a temporary piece.
The administration has the capability to ensure students have art that they enjoy viewing and connect with, but it doesn’t. Instead, they have practically granted a monopoly on campus art to a a council of distant academics and a single university employee and made no independent effort to include those who actually spend their lives on this campus. The administration deprives students of art specifically for us and by us, and that’s anti-student.