Borrowers with artwork at the Minneapolis Art Lending Library (photo by James P. Lehmann)

For centuries, those who lacked the space or resources to collect artworks really only had one option — experiencing whatever fine art they could find in public spaces like museums. But in many cities, it’s now possible to borrow art for free. All you need is a local “art lending library” — an innovation in art sharing that could, just maybe, help democratize an activity that was once considered inaccessible.

Art lending libraries function like traditional book libraries: individuals can borrow an artwork, enjoy it in their own home, and return it by a due date with little to no fee. They have a decades-long history on university campuses, but they seem to be gaining popularity among museums, public libraries, and nonprofits. Despite differences in collection sizes and objectives, these institutions share certain goals, like reaching new audiences and creating new spaces for local creative discourse.

The Octopus Initiative at the MCA Denver (courtesy From the Hip Photo)

Recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA Denver) launched its own local take on the art lending library — the Octopus Initiative. Adam Lerner, the director of the museum, said that the goal was to support artists financially, while ensuring that their art finds an audience. “We could just give artists money. We could buy their art. But then what?” Lerner said. “Or, we could buy it and give it away. It took little time to develop the concept with the premise of helping artists share in the city’s prosperity.”

To create its lending library, the MCA Denver commissioned 20 Denver artists to produce 25 works each. Artists were also given a stipend for supplies and studio access. “The amount that the MCA commissioned the works for was close to what I make in a year at my day job,” said artist Laura Shill in an email. “It opened opportunities, like residencies and experimenting with new materials.”

From the borrower’s perspective, the library is a repository of 500 locally-made artworks, available to borrow for up to a year through a lottery. The system is free for Denver residents. “It started with the artists, but it’s crucial that anyone understand the value artists have on our city in a direct way, by taking home their work,” Lerner said.

The Octopus Initiative at the MCA Denver (courtesy From the Hip Photo)

In creating the project, the MCA took inspiration from university art libraries, which often generate tremendous demand. MIT’s Student Loan Art Collection has existed since 1969, and in a recent lending session, 975 people entered a lottery for 600 artworks. Demand also exceeded supply when the University of Chicago revived its lending library after a 30-year hiatus. By 8am on distribution day, around 100 students had lined up. Some had camped out overnight.

One challenge for art libraries is making sure that their collections are inclusive and diverse. The University of Chicago’s art lending library, Art to Live With, originated with a collection assembled by Joseph R. Shapiro, an alumnus and the founding president of MCA Chicago. A student-staffed Collections and Acquisition committee needed to be established to diversify the library, which included works by mostly male and European artists.

Measuring the impact of these initiatives is a challenge, too. This year, both MIT and the University of Chicago created surveys that aimed to determine whether students who borrowed art also became patrons of cultural events and spaces. (The results aren’t in yet.) Of the MCA in Denver, Lerner said that some borrowers may have a previous interest in particular artists, but he expects others to start “following” the artists whose work they borrow. At the MCA’s library launch event, 21 out of 28 borrowers told me that they didn’t know any of the participating artists. Several lottery entrants said they were participating because they wanted to hang original art in their home for free.

Student Lottery Art Program Exhibition at MIT List Visual Arts (image courtesy John Kennard and MIT List Visual Arts Center)

That’s exactly what artists want to happen. “There is no doubt that the project will help my work reach more audiences,” said artist Chris Oatey in an email. “That is one of my most desired outcomes as an artist.” Vivian LeCourtois, an installation artist, said that “hopefully, people that borrow the works will purchase works by the artists they like.” 1,600 people entered the first lottery on April 15th. It’s too soon to tell whether they’ll be back — and whether they’ll be willing to pay for art in the future.

It can be difficult to balance the values of an art museum and a library, according to Dana Bishop-Root of the Braddock Carnegie Library. “An art museum, to some extent, participates in the market place. A library is about the free exchange of resources and ideas. It operates outside of the dominate or capitalist system,” she said. “So, when we introduce art as part of the library collection, we are asking, can art adopt a different value system?”

The art collection at the Braddock Carnegie Library is part of the Alleghany County library system, and the art can be processed like a book — or visitors can discuss the artwork with a paid art facilitator. To remove the barriers to entry for new audiences, whether logistical or psychological, some art libraries actively go looking for new audiences. For example, The Hepworth Wakefield recently revived The School Prints program from the 1940s by bringing contemporary art into schools. The Minneapolis Art Lending Library (MALL), a non-profit art lending library with a “borrow or buy” system, recently went on tour to public libraries and community centers.

In all these art libraries, demand tends to grow faster than the collections themselves. By driving students, museum visitors, and library patrons to local art, Dana Bishop-Root said, libraries can “interrupt the contemporary narrative that art must be brought in from the outside.” Institutions, she added, should “insist that contemporary arts discourse is impoverished without the voices of our neighbors.”

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Kealey Boyd

Kealey Boyd is a writer and art critic. Her writing appears in the LATimes, Art Papers, College Art Association, The Belladonna Comedy, Artillery Magazine and elsewhere. She teaches journalism at University...

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