The Akron Art Museum will make art an everyday experience with their art library lending program

We all know how libraries work: you find a book (or maybe an academic journal, magazine, DVD, even a music CD) that you would like to check out with your library card, issued for free usually with proof of address for adults 18+ and children accompanied by a guardian, and you check it out – again, for free – for a specified length of time (usually a few weeks). All very standard, right?

But what if you were to take that free lending model and replicate it for other uses aside from the literary, the academic, and pure entertainment? What if you took this practice and applied it to visual arts, allowing people to take a work of art to hang in their homes temporarily, then return it and “check out” another work of art to enjoy at home?

The Akron Art Museum is working on a program that will do exactly that.

Alison Caplan, Director of Education for the Akron Art Museum, says seeing similar programs in other cities sparked the idea. The Braddock Carnegie Library just outside of Pittsburgh lends out donated works from past Carnegie International exhibiting artists for three weeks at a time to anyone with an Allegheny County library card. Oberlin College in Ohio, in partnership with the Allen Memorial Art Museum, allows students to rent up to two pieces of art per semester for $5 each, which Caplan herself took advantage of while she attended the school.

“It made such a huge impact on my life to be able to take original artwork by artists every semester and hang them in my dorm,” she says. “Here we’re looking at what people want out of museums, what they expect out of museums, why they come to museums and why they don’t. We’re examining how everyday people think about artwork. You might not be an artist but there is something in your life that you do that is creative.”

Caplan and her colleagues figure that a person doesn’t have to be an artist or be a wealthy collector to appreciate art in his or her everyday life; art is something that enriches everyone’s lives, no matter who they are, what they do, where they come from, or how much money they have. She mentions Herb and Dorothy Vogel, an “ordinary” couple – he was a postmaster, she worked as a teacher – who filled their humble one-bedroom rent-controlled apartment in New York with over 4,000 works of art over a 45-year period.

Described as “proletarian art collectors,” the Vogels’ story has been a source of fascination in the art world, inspiring a documentary film released the same year that they began distributing their work through a national gift project, The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: 50 Works for 50 States. The Akron Art Museum was one of the institutions fortunate to receive part of their collection.

Caplan, and doubtless many others, finds their story inspiring. “Art is attainable for everyone,” she says. “It’s not just for the elite. It’s not just for high-end donors. Herb and Dorothy showed that we can each collect artwork and promote artwork in our own way.”

The Akron Art Museum has been working to make are more “accessible” to people – not just physically but conceptually, attempting to change the way people understand and relate to art in their everyday lives as something other than an esoteric experience confined to formal institutions like museums. One way they approached this was with the Living With Art exhibition, which took pieces from the museum’s collection and displayed them in galleries made to look like common living spaces with furniture and décor by local craftsmen.

“What do you appreciate? What do you want to have up on your walls?” Caplan says these are the questions the museum ultimately asked of its visitors, encouraging them to think more about these artworks not as relics that should be housed behind glass in hushed galleries but as dynamic works that can and should be put in the back of your car, driven back to your home, and popped up on your living room wall.

The museum also participates in the Inside|Out program, a Knight Foundation-funded project that takes ornately framed, high-quality reproductions of famous works of art and displays them outside in streets and parks for people everywhere to enjoy and feel a connection to the art, the museum, and their community. First initiated in 2010 by the Detroit Institute of Arts, the program is now being replicated by art institutions in eight other Knight Arts cities. Naturally, the Akron Arts Museum got right on board.

“These are random acts of art,” Caplan says. “People see these works in a new way and really feel ownership of them, whether they’re in a grocery store or a park. They really feel a connection to them.”

The museum is participating in Inside|Out again this year, and once the program closes out in October they will begin ramping up for their next random act of art: the art rental program, which will allow anyone with a county library card to check out pieces of art from the Akron-Summit County Public Library for three weeks at a time.

The lending program will consist of works from local and regional artists, whom Caplan says the museum has struggled in building a strong relationship with in the past.

“We really want to promote artists in our city and in our region,” she says. “The museum has always really struggled with its relationship with local artists. We haven’t done the greatest job of highlighting artists in our community and promoting them. This program puts money back in the local arts community, showing that their art has value. We’re paying them too; maybe not as much as they would normally get but we’re starting that conversation that it’s important to pay artists and incorporate them into our community and lives.”

She’s hoping that one of the program’s participating artists can be Mark Mothersbaugh, Akron native and founder on the band DEVO who will have a solo exhibition opening at the museum later this month that runs through the summer.

“I just love the idea of taking something like a Mark Mothersbaugh piece or something from another local artist, taking them home and putting them next to something you treasure in your house,” says Caplan.

“Everyone is curating their own lives. This is their chance to check out work from our lending library collection and create their own ‘show.’ Businesses have the chance to connect with us and with the community. It will help generate programming that will promote local artists and the arts and the museum. It will also generate programming in the community, with workshops on how to collect artwork, how to hang it, how to care for it, how to frame it, where to buy it. Maybe we can take people on an ‘art walk on a budget,’ so we’re starting that conversation about collecting art and thinking about art and showing people that you don’t have to go to Target and buy a poster to have art in your home.”

The collection will be stored and displayed at the Akron-Summit County Public Library across the street from the museum.

“It was important to me to not have the collection live at museum,” says Caplan. “If it’s at the library, people will come upon it who would not have come upon it at the museum. It is important for it to be offsite and build relationships between people who go to the library, versus people who go to the museum, who are not necessarily the same people.”

The question of how to stay relevant is one that is never far from the minds of those in leadership positions at museums and libraries, but both the Akron Art Museum and the Akron-Summit County Public Library are testing out new ways to stay relevant and continue engaging the community. The library, for example, has a seed-sharing library so visitors can start growing their own gardens at home (it’s also a clever way to repurpose those now-defunct old card catalogues). This art-lending program is just the latest strategy the two institutions are utilizing in order to diversify, further connect with the public outside of their regular audiences, and foster a sense of ownership in the community for this artwork and for the museum.

The works available for lending will be displayed at the library in a structure similar to a poster rack that visitors can flip through. Special bags specially designed for transporting artwork will be sent home with each rental. There is a certain expectation of general wear and tear from bumps during transport, but each piece will be framed behind glass and will also be insured. The short three-week checkout period is also one method of ensuring the safety of the piece, and the museum will contact people two weeks into their rental to check in with them and remind them of their return date.

Pieces will be chosen by a committee of local arts leaders and supporters, and Caplan would also like for the community to have a say in what goes into the collection. She says she hopes to have the program up and running by next spring, but first the museum needs to begin soliciting artists for work and plans on running a Kickstarter campaign to match the Knight Arts Challenge grant they received for this program.

If this is successful, perhaps it will follow the path of the Inside|Out program and inspire similar art-lending libraries all over the country, allowing for a certain level of egalitarianism in everyday art appreciation.