Perspectives on Student-Led Public Art on Campus



“Sum of All Parts” was created by Annie Ulrich ’13 and funded by CAPP.


When Annie Ulrich ’13 describes Atwater Dining Hall, she describes a space that carries a magical dimension mirroring the fantastically bright world of the movie “La La Land.” Ulrich created “Sum of All Parts,” a public art piece at Atwater Dining that fills its high ceiling with more than eight hundred whimsical paper planes made from recycled papers, projects and problem sets.

During regular mealtime hours, lights from the ceiling illuminate the planes’ pages, yellowed with age and exposure and interconnected by cobwebs. The composition of the fleet creates a sense of dynamic movement so that, according to Annie, the planes seem to be in the middle of spiraling forward despite their static position in space.

“When you look at it from the back, through the beautiful large windows at night,” she said, “it feels like that space has something going on after hours, after everyone has left.”

Change seems to be a recurring theme when Ulrich speaks about the installation, which began as a project for her studio art senior independent study course. “Sum of All Parts” was created three times, each time for a different purpose. The piece was remade for Atwater Dining after Ulrich was presented with the CAPP award, a yearly award established by the Committee for Art in Public Places (CAPP) to honor a graduating senior. The most recent recipient of the award is Daniella Silva ’17, whose work is currently on display in the lower lobby of the Axinn Center at Starr Library.

As most CAPP pieces only stay on campus for one to two years, maintenance was not one of Ulrich’s priorities when considering the installation of “Sum of All Parts.” CAPP is now considering either a thorough cleaning of the piece or its removal.

Aided by the liberal use of a hot glue-gun, the paper planes were attached to mechanical wires, which were then attached to hoops that hung from the ceiling of the dining hall. Unfortunately, the same quality that allowed the piece to be easily mounted makes the piece vulnerable to the advances of time. Dust has been collecting in the folds of the paper and a colony of spiders have made their own additions to the piece through a series of artfully interconnected cobwebs.

Richard Saunders, the director of CAPP, says that the installation’s fate has not yet been decided, and sees enthusiasm in the college community to keep the piece.

According to Saunders, the selection process for the recipient of the CAPP award involves an “organic process” that allows members of the community to vote for the work of one of three nominated graduating students to reflect current interests of the student body and highlights of the studio art program. Included in the CAPP award is an agreement that the artwork will be displayed for approximately two years, after which it will be returned to the creator of the piece.

The removal or addition of a new installation is guided by practical considerations requiring a collaborative effort between the Space Management Committee, Campus Facilities and CAPP, which has recently undergone formal reorganization into a bicameral system that Saunders likens to the House and Senate of the American political system.

“There was never a plan to put all the works [of public art] in one location,” Saunders said. “The works are meant to engage, to be placed where people are likely to see them. Many students don’t make it to the Museum in their four years here, and the Public Arts program is an opportunity for unexpected encounters with art.” Often, Saunders added, the public art that seems to fade to the background of our daily lives eventually becomes an integral part of students’ experiences at Middlebury.

Ulrich, who returned to the college after graduation as the college’s associate costume director, echoed this notion. She noticed that other alumni who returned to visit saw the changes in the campus’s appearance as a reflection of changes in the more general campus scene.

“Art transforms a space by its presence but some art is not meant to last” Ulrich said. She points to professional artist Patrick Dougherty’s temporary piece, “So Inclined,” which inhabited the front lawn of the Mahaney Center of the Arts from 2007 to 2011 before practical reasons necessitated its removal. The changes in both Dougherty’s piece and hers reflect a natural process that occurs over time.

“Art doesn’t have to be this monument that just sits there,” Ulrich said.  Interactive and accessible, Ulrich’s works are meant to invite viewers not to “come and adore me,” but rather to “come and play with me.”

At the last meeting of the CAPP, Professor Sanford Mirling of the studio art department presented a tri-college public art exchange program with Bennington College and Plattsburg State University. Through this program, three works from the Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota will be on loan for two years to each of the three schools, after which time the schools  will exchange the works with each other. As permanent acquisition and maintenance works of art can be expensive, the public art exchange program, as Saunders points out, offers a means for the college to less expensively bring new works of art to campus and take calculated risks by bringing controversial works that will spark discussions in the public sphere and update the public art program to become truly contemporary.

Opportunities for student-directed public art are available through the CAPP fund. Saunders cites the murals in Proctor Dining Hall and at the back of Wright Memorial Theater as works which were either executed or proposed by students.

Ross Commons has also made an effort to bring student-created art into living spaces. Professor Maria Hatjigeorgiou, faculty co-head of Ross Commons, says that accessible art takes a special role in humanizing a living space as crowded as that which the “Rossers” inhabit. Near the Ross Commons Office, she points to the wall on which a collection called “100 Daves” had been displayed.  The work was curated by senior Andrew Smith ’17 and its name is a pun on the eponymous final 100 days before seniors graduate from the college. The white brick wall is now empty.

“Look at that,” she said, her tone jokingly disdainful. “That is an institutional wall.”

Hatjigeorgiou speaks about her role in “setting an intellectual tone” for the students in a way that is similar to the presence of art in daily life.

“What we do is invisible,” she says, “but it permeates a space.” She refers to the commons in which a student belongs as the “intellectual home” where he or she individuates. In this process of differentiation, Hatjigeorgiou reasons, art is the medium that, “lends voices to people who may be quiet and introspective, who are not speaking out loud, who need art in their lives.”

“We sometimes have to be cautious with the art we display,” Hatjigeorgiou said, “because it might invite disrespect. We have to create a balance between being hopeful and doing what is practical. But I’m an idealist. I believe in art. Art humanizes.”