Exhibition view of Rafael Villares's installation Unknown Land VII (Caribbean, Atlantic, and Adriatic Seafloor)(2022) (image courtesy the artist)

On November 16, the Yale Daily News reported that two sculptures were stolen at the tail end of Blanket Statements: 1st-Year MFA Fall Exhibition, on view at the Yale School of Art’s Green Hall Gallery. Now, the art students are at odds with the university over the handbook policy that states “students are responsible for the safety and security of their belongings.”

Rafael Villares, “Earth’s crust model with flattened continents and extruded seafloor,” the stolen component of his 2022 installation (image courtesy the artist)

One of the artists whose work was taken, Rafael Villares, told the Yale Daily News that his wife went to the gallery to take photos the day before the exhibition ended and saw that a part of his installation, Unknown Land VII (Caribbean, Atlantic, and Adriatic Seafloor), was missing. It was a 3D-printed globe with an extruded seafloor and recessed continents, measuring about 16 inches in diameter, that was taken from the wooden shelf beside a large-scale drawing done with lapis lazuli pigments. Villares’s wife had texted him asking, “Where is the ball?”

Villares began sending emails to the facilities managers and messages to the art WhatsApp group, inquiring if anyone knew what had happened or had any insight regarding the whereabouts of his globe. “Facilities answered me pretty fast, saying they didn’t know anything about it,” Villares told Hyperallergic.

It was after another visit to the gallery with his friend, Ivana Dama, that it became apparent that another sculpture was missing as well. Y. Malik Jalal’s sinewy metal piece “The Anthropocene” had apparently been taken off of the bright red Chevrolet mat that sat on the gallery floor.

In the Daily News report, Jalal concluded that because his and Villares’s sculptures were freestanding and highly visible, it was probably easy to carry them out of the gallery without hassle. Jalal also noted that while the gallery hours were 10am to 5pm, anyone with a Yale ID card could enter the premises at any given moment. Villares also claimed that there are no gallery attendants onsite that monitor the works during open hours.

Another MFA student, David Jon Walker, told the News that there aren’t any security cameras within the campus gallery, either.

Installation view of Y. Malik Jalal’s “The Anthropocene” (2022) (image courtesy the artist)

A spokesperson for the Yale School of Art told Hyperallergic that the university is saddened by the theft, and that they remain hopeful that the culprit is apprehended and the works can be returned. However, the School of Art annually provides the first-year MFA cohort with the handbook that clearly outlines the personal belongings policies and recommendations of private insurance, and requires that they sign a form stating that they have read and understood the terms prior to receiving their studio keys.

Villares was puzzled by the theft of these objects in particular, given that the exhibition contained multiple televisions and projectors that could be easily taken and resold or used instead of a 3D printed globe. He told Hyperallergic that the university police hypothesized that the sculptures could have been stolen during a fraternity hazing ritual. A campus police representative could not be reached for comment.

Naturally, the theft has shaken the Yale School of Art, but it has opened up a conversation about frustrations with the university’s policies as well. As the handbook states, students are responsible for the safety of their belongings, and that as the university does not insure student works or belongings, they’re encouraged to look at private insurance options. Villares and Jalal were disappointed that their approaches to “those in leadership positions” regarding this matter were rebuffed, citing the handbook policies.

“It’s only been a week, but we still don’t know anything about the video recordings or if the police have made any progress,” Villares told Hyperallergic. “In my opinion, it is no longer about my case or Malik’s in particular, but about the strategies that Yale should think or rethink in the future regarding the gallery and the artwork of the students exhibited and produced behind Yale’s walls. I would like to consider that this event can be productive and contribute to reestablishing the security and confidence of the students with the institution that ‘protects’ them.”

Installation view of Rafael Villares’s Unknown Land VII (Caribbean, Atlantic, and Adriatic Seafloor) (2022) (image courtesy the artist)

Villares, originally from Cuba, said that balancing life as an international student with a wife and two daughters was exciting and challenging, but this incident “adds an odd layer of insecurity to [their] first semester living in the United States and at Yale.”

Jalal uplifted Villares’s point, saying that it’s “backwards.”

“The work that we as students and professionals produce is the wealth that these programs rely on, like that with any academy. For that to not be protected is nonsense,” he reiterated.

The Daily News report states that the School of Art reached out to Villares and Jalal via email, offering to reimburse them for the materials used in the stolen works, forgoing the handbook policy. Yet, according to Jalal, the cost of the materials alone doesn’t measure up to the labor behind producing the works. The representative for the Yale School of Art told Hyperallergic that there is a town hall scheduled in the School of Art after the November recess that will address safety and security concerns and how to implement change.

Villares plans to propose a work-study program for students to serve as gallery attendants moving forward, so that there is someone actively monitoring the exhibitions during the open hours. But for now, he remains optimistic that this situation will serve the university and its students for the better.

“Fortunately, this is something I can remedy. But I hope that the work being done to resolve this will contribute to better safety and security for both my peers and myself, as the galleries are a huge asset for us and for the university,” Villares concluded.

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