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Hidden Treasures: Take Home a Masterpiece from Doe Library

May 17, 2018
by Kali Persall

Compared to the opulent and tranquil UC Berkeley Morrison Library, the modest adjoining art storage room, at first glance, isn’t much to write home about.

But looks can be deceiving; what it lacks in appearance, it makes up with cultural richness. The Graphic Arts Loan Collection (GALC)—peeling white shelves, offset by dusty linoleum floors—houses more than 800 original pieces of art, diverse as the university itself.

A hidden gem at Cal, the 60-year-old art-lending program allows students, faculty, and staff to take home original art for a semester, free of charge.

Anyone can buy a cheap poster online, but Scott Peterson, head of the Morrison Library, believes that living with an original piece of art is a special experience that can’t be replicated with a mass-produced copy.

“There’s something about the aura of the art that is quite different, because you know it’s that one that was created by that artist,” says Peterson. “That’s something that the mechanical age of reproduction can’t take away….This is a completely different kind of learning experience that I don’t think the digital world will replace.”    

GALC collection in storage
The GALC collection in storage

The GALC—founded in 1958 by architecture professor Herwin Schaefer—is the only university art lending program in the state, and one of fewer than a dozen in the country, including programs at MIT and Harvard.

Decades ago, on the first day of each semester, Cal students would camp outside the library in lines like concert ticket-holders, in order to be the first to reserve their coveted choices, says Peterson.

The prints were dispersed physically—this is before the internet, of course— on a first-come, first-serve basis. For several days, students would browse through art stacked around the room, before selecting their two allowed prints.

“Back then, for somebody to have a piece of art was exciting,” said Peterson. “It’s still exciting today, but if you wanted to look at a Chagall [back then], you didn’t have the internet. There was no and posters were quite expensive back then too.”

Now, prints are mostly evaluated and checked out through the GALC website. Cal affiliates can find available artists and art, request prints, and fill out a borrowing agreement online.  

Jennifer Osgood, Morrison Library’s technical processing lead, manages these requests, pulls the prints from storage, packages the corners with cardboard, and puts them in large plastic bags, where they await the journey to their new homes for the semester.

The collection includes engravings, etchings, paintings, mixed media, and lithographs by local artists and famous painters alike, such as early modernist Marc Chagall, abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, Edouard Manet, and Edward Gorey.

Students lined up outside the lending library
Students line up outside the lending library in 1960 / California Monthly

With some of the prints valued at $1,000, there’s an inherent trust built into this program. Osgood claims that none of the prints have ever been damaged or stolen.

“[Borrowers] are more cautious about it because it is an original piece of art,” says Peterson. “There’s some value in there that’s not just monetary, but it’s actually cultural.”

Until the 1990s, new prints were bought every year with endowment money, funded by the Columbia Foundation and the International Graphic Arts Society. The program now receives about $10,000 annually, according to Peterson.

Only about 40 prints have been added to the collection since 2010, mainly as gifts from donors and Cal alumni who appreciated the program when they were students. GALC has instead focused its resources on a full-scale preservation of the existing prints.

Every month over the past seven years, about a dozen prints from the collection are taken to a local shop to be reframed and fitted with acid-free matting.

According to Peterson, the majority of the collection was originally fitted with acidic matting, a chemical compound that releases acid over time. Commonly used in art framing during the 1950s through 1970s, they can cause prints to turn yellow and brittle and, over time, deteriorate.

Morisson Library inside
The Morisson Library, which administers and stores the collection / Doe Library

The pair is also working on breathing new life into the program’s educational and outreach efforts.

The collection was inactive from 1998 to 2008, while the Morrison Library was closed for seismic retrofitting. So, general knowledge about the collection and once popular lending program dramatically declined during that time.

Seven years ago, only about 80 prints were checked out, primarily by staff and faculty. This year, the library counted 500 checkouts, which began with an avalanche of 200 requests that spilled into Osgood’s inbox on the first day of fall term.

The collection team has also started a Graphic Arts Experience blog, which shares student posts about their experiences living with a particular print.

Peterson hopes these efforts will inspire students incorporate more art into their lives, whether by collecting prints or visiting more museums.

It’s this same goal that Alexei Vranich, an archeologist and research fellow at Cal, had in mind when he reserved 20 prints for Bowles Hall, the co-ed residence that resembles a castle on the hill behind the campus.

The idea is that in years to come, Bowles students will form their own committee and choose the prints together every semester, in keeping with a theme. This will give them the opportunity to design their own art exhibits and bolster their resumes, says Vranich.

“In the long run, it’s just exposing students to good art,” said Vranich. “I’ve been living in residence halls for a long time and I can make you a list of the top 10 posters that everyone seems to have in their room, because it defines college. There’s a whole lot of art out there, so let’s be a little bit more original.”

Vranich says he hopes to eventually see prints in every student room in Bowles, and envisions the students organizing their own art walks, where they can share their experiences with their prints.

Lauren Stoops, an undergraduate Bowles Hall resident, woke up early on reservation day to put a hold on her pre-chosen prints.

Brial Veil painting
Brial Veil by William Leroy

A first-year participant in the program, Stoops chose Bridal Veil by William Leroy, a black and white etching of Yosemite Falls. “Yosemite has always been one of my favorite places, and the drawing by Leroy takes me there,” said Stoops. “I find that the simplicity only adds to the beauty. It gives the viewer space to use their imagination.”

Her second choice was September Pond, by A.B. Makk, an abstract comparable to Monet’s Water Lilies paintings. “I was drawn to Makk’s blending of blues, greens, and yellows,” she said. “In my room, I have two fish tanks, several golden string lights, and a large tapestry green of a meadow. September incorporated the themes of water, light, and life already present. I wanted the art to compliment the rest of my room…I wanted to avoid having two art pieces fighting for the same space.”

The art we hang on our walls says a lot about us, says Peterson, who finds it fascinating to see what students pick out. He likes to imagine the conversations the prints will have with each other, as well as the students.

Original art isn’t going away anytime soon, say Peterson and Osgood, who see art-lending as a different kind of learning experience that cannot be replaced by the digital world.

“Everybody’s so saturated with the digital everything and images, but to actually hold the piece and physically touch it and look at it every day and to know that the artist touched this too is a personal experience,” said Peterson. … “That’s not something you get from a poster.”

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