Art for the Asking: Library exhibit honors 60 years of sharing art

It’s either a flower, robot butterfly, or alien ballerina — maybe.

Staring at the large, colorful concoction in her arms, Poppy Tian can’t tell you exactly what she’s looking at. The good news, though, is she’ll have the whole school year to figure it out.

Artwork by Mitsuo Kano
An abstract etching by Mitsuo Kano is among the pieces available through the Library’s Graphics Arts Loan Collection program. (UC Berkeley Library)

“I’m thinking of places to put it,” muses Tian, a second-year business student who has just picked up the abstract Mitsuo Kano piece from Morrison Library. She'll probably put it near her bed, she says — “somewhere I can see it a lot.”

“It’s one of the joys of life, to be surrounded by what I consider beauty,” Tian says. “I think about this a lot: What is the meaning of life? And to me, it’s to make some contribution to society and appreciate beauty.”

In the 1950s, UC Berkeley professor of decorative arts Herwin Schaefer devised a plan to spread his own love and appreciation for art across campus: an art-lending program that, for one semester at a time, would bring the likes of Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, and Kandinsky into the homes and hearts of students.

In September of 1958, during the program’s first week, more than 5,000 students showed up. In later years, dozens of students would camp outside of Doe Library, waiting to claim a piece of art.

“It can’t be true, what they say about youth,” critic Alexander Fried wrote in The San Francisco Examiner on the program’s launch. “By ‘they’ I mean people who are always bemoaning delinquency, illiteracy or the general youthful neglect for the finer things in life.”

Today, the Graphic Arts Loan Collection — GALC for short — is still going strong. GALC is currently one of 10 university art-lending programs in the country and the only program run through a library, rather than an art museum, says Scott Peterson, head of Morrison Library, where the collection is housed.

This fall, the UC Berkeley Library has curated an exhibit celebrating the program’s long and vivid success. Doe Library’s Brown Gallery will be filled with ephemera from the program, including collection catalogs, newspaper clippings, posters, letters from the community, and campus memos. Together, the documents tell the charming biography of a campus treasure now 60 years old.

“It’s such an enlightened idea, to allow students to live with a work of art for a term or two,” wrote a student in 1983, in a note included in the exhibit.

Peter Selz in his home
Art surrounds Peter Selz, the founding director of the University Art Museum, in his Berkeley home. (Photo by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

“It’s a matter of pure enjoyment, but also, living with art gives people a sensitivity, absolutely, and more feeling, more understanding,” says Peter Selz, founding director of the University Art Museum, now the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, in a recent interview. “Living with art gets you beyond everyday activity into a deeper world.”

Selz helped develop and acquire prints for GALC in its early decades. At 99, Selz — whose Berkeley home of white walls and popping art feels like a museum — likens living with art to listening to music, or poetry, saying it makes one a “fuller human being.”

According to Peterson, interest in GALC has grown steadily over the last decade, with the number of prints checked out nearly doubling several years in a row. One day, in early September, dozens of prints sat behind Morrison’s front desk, bundled and ready for their new home.

“These are all people who are excited to have art on their wall,” says exhibit co-curator Jennifer Osgood, glancing around the room.

Many of GALC’s most valuable works will be on display in the exhibit, transforming the corridor outside Doe’s Brown Gallery. The walls will feature perennial favorites that are quickly snatched up every year, as well as works that have become too valuable to circulate.

There are also displays dedicated to the history and diversity of printmaking, as represented by works in the collection — from relief etching and intaglio to lithograph and silkscreen. The nearly 900 prints in GALC span five centuries, says Osgood, who wanted the exhibit to reflect and inform that historical breadth.

Artwork on a stand
Students peruse art in MorrisonPacking up art for a borrower
Top to bottom: Clockwise from left: Pieces of art available through the art lending program were on display for an event in Morrison Library on Aug. 28, 2018; Kathryn Field, left, and Nigel Jones look at artwork in Morrison; corners on a piece of art get protection for the journey to its new home. (Photos by Cade Johnson for the UC Berkeley Library)

“The whole reason GALC was started was to foster in students a better appreciation of art — you live with a print, you look at it every day, and you start to understand it more,” Peterson says. “This exhibit gives you an even better appreciation. … You see the work the artist put into the print. There’s a history behind this art.”

To shine a light on the artistic process, the exhibit curators included tutorials for several printmaking styles and the tools used for various mediums. To complement the exhibit, UC Berkeley lecturer and artist Randy Hussong will give a demonstration of the printmaking process in the Printmaking Studio, in 265 Kroeber Hall, on Oct. 5. The event, open to all, takes place from 2-3:30 p.m.

“I thought a good component to the exhibit would be (printmaking) processes because, while people can see that it’s a stunning piece of art, they might not know the work that goes into it — how time consuming it can be,” Osgood says. “So I wanted to bring that to light as well.”

In the years to come, Peterson hopes to acquire new prints for the collection. For many years — because endowment funds were going toward the restoration of existing prints — GALC grew only through donations from alumni who had enjoyed GALC as students and continued to collect art after college.

In a way, that’s what Schaefer first imagined for GALC so many years ago, notes Peterson.

“Living for a time with a lithograph, an etching or a woodcut by an artist of our time will awaken or strengthen a desire in the student for art as a natural and necessary part of his life,” Schaefer wrote in the introduction for an old GALC catalog. “Should he come to wish to own a work of art, he will find that many original prints are within his reach.”

Visitor walks by art on wall
A visitor walks by GALC art hanging in the Brown Gallery on Sept. 18, 2018. (Photo by Cade Johnson for the UC Berkeley Library)

For Osgood, the exhibit is a chance to take Schaefer’s dream one step further and encourage students to consider creating art themselves. One reason artists first started tinkering with styles such as woodcuts, Osgood says, is because it’s something you can do at home — without too much money or a fancy studio.

“A lot of people think (making art) is more complicated than it is,” she says. “It’s not — it’s something you can do on the weekends or in your spare time.

“As long as you have a love for it, you can do it.”

The exhibit runs through Feb. 28, 2019. Students, staff, and faculty can reserve prints at galc.lib.berkeley.edu.

Exhibit case includes artAn exhibit case in Brown Gallery
Top to bottom: Left to right: The exhibit includes a variety of tools used in different mediums and displays about the GALC program over the years. (Photos by Cade Johnson for the UC Berkeley Library)