Patricia Fuller, curator of public art at MIT, is retiring from the Institute this week. Over the last decade — first as a contractor and then as a member of the MIT staff — she has helped lead an ambitious campaign to conserve and restore many of the works that make up MIT’s impressive public art collection, and has overseen the addition of 11 new works to the collection. In an interview with MIT News before her departure, Fuller reflected on the role of public art at the Institute and the importance of maintaining the Institute’s collection.
Q. What rewards and challenges does MIT’s public art collection present?
A. I lead public art tours for the MIT community and for the public at large, and it’s amazing to see the response. It’s always, “I had no idea that all this was at MIT” — even from within the MIT community! It’s such a pleasure to show that to people and to hear their interest. It’s wonderful that this secret is made available to people.
The challenge is that these works are out in public, not in a museum, and so they’re subject to wear and tear. There are environmental forces acting on them — sun, wind, rain — and people can access them. At MIT there’s the hack environment as well. Even though hacks aren’t meant to cause harm, people don’t always understand that even scotch tape presents hazards to some of the surfaces like bronze and even paint. So there are always those forces at play.
Q. How have you, the arts community at MIT and the Department of Facilities addressed these challenges?
A. We depend on the Department of Facilities a lot. They’re an important partner and work with us very closely to perform maintenance many works of art. Take the Sol LeWitt floor in the atrium around the Green Center, for example. They maintain it beautifully. They’re doing a lot of work right now in the plaza outside E15 — they’re replacing a lot of the granite pavers that have been cracked. That’s not something we could do.
We also work with a lot of professional conservators in the Boston-Cambridge community and we’re grateful to have them here. Also, our staff members are trained to maintain a lot of the sculptures that are on the campus. We have a lot of different arms out there addressing the problems and the challenges.
Q. There has been a concerted effort over the last 10 to 12 years to restore and conserve MIT’s public art collection. How did that evolve?
A. Jane Farver (director of the List Visual Arts Center) deserves a lot of credit for that. She brought that awareness with her as director of the List and spearheaded the interest in addressing those issues. There was a long period in which people felt we just didn’t have the resources to tackle that, and she made it a priority. We’ve all endorsed that.
We’re pretty much on a maintenance plan now with the big steel sculptures. There will always be unexpected problems that arise — a coffee stain on a mural, for instance — but we’re really in a much better place than we were 12 years ago because of the huge effort that has been made. And we’re also working on creating an endowment, which, if we’re able to raise it, will make us much better off than we have been in the past.
Q. Describe for our readers the most challenging public art conservation project that you’ve been part of while at MIT. What lessons were learned as a result?
A. I would have to say there were two: the Henry Moore in Killian Court and the Kenneth Noland mural on our building (E15). The Henry Moore was challenging because we had to spend a lot of time thinking about the right thing to do and consulting with the artist’s studio and doing a lot of research. It’s such an important piece of art and obviously we didn’t want to do anything wrong — art conservation is like medicine, in that regard: The last thing you want to do is any harm. With the Kenneth Noland mural, we again had to do a lot of research. We had to raise a huge amount of money for each project, and they were both very tricky but hugely rewarding in the end.
In both cases, we were dealing with hugely publicly accessible things that were vulnerable and suffering precisely because of that. We really had to think through how do we protect that work in spite of its vulnerability. A bronze is really very tender, and you can’t put up huge signs saying “Don’t touch the sculpture” when it’s out in the middle of a huge lawn, so we tried to be diplomatic about that while also being as protective of the sculpture as possible. I think we may have succeeded to a large degree. Part of it is public awareness: making people understand that it’s a lovely thing but you have to be careful not to destroy it unwittingly.
Q. MIT has at least four new public art projects coming on line on the next year?
A. We have just installed a new work by Cai Guo-Qiang at the new Sloan Building. We just completed a new work by Richard Fleischner in the courtyard between the Media Lab and the Medical Center. We will be installing a new work by Anish Kapoor in the Stata Lobby in August. We will be installing a new work by Scottish artist Martin Boyce at the new David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and that will pretty much be it until new buildings come on line in the future.
Q. Tell us about the process of obtaining these installations and why these artists want to come to MIT?
A. With projects that stem from MIT’s Percent-for-Art Program (a program administered by the List Visual Arts Center that allots up to $250,000 to commission art for each new major renovation or building project), we usually work with a committee that is formed of end-users of the building. With a dormitory, it will be a housemaster, house manager, students who want to participate, the architect or designer, and the Facilities project manager. With a laboratory or research facility like the Koch Institute, it’ll be researchers and staff who will work in the building, the architect and the Facilities project manager. We work with them to come up with an artist. We usually assemble a group of artists who might be appropriate given what we know about what is happening in the building, and what the architect tells us about the public spaces in the building, and work with the committee to reach a consensus.
I think artists tend to be interested in working with us because of the strength of our collection and because of the opportunities we give artists. We try not to be overly controlling about what we want. We try to tell them what they’re about and ask them to respond to that.
Q. As you prepare to retire, what advice would you give MIT regarding its public art collection?
A. I think we should build on the strengths of what we have been doing: We try to reflect the best and most creative of what’s going on in contemporary art and match the kind of excellence that MIT reflects in all of its research and intellectual activities.
I think we absolutely need to keep it a major priority to preserve our collection and show it off at its very best. Artists respect that and they will continue to want to be part of this collection if they know that we’re going to show it off at its very best and preserve it for the future.