A Letter Concerning The Art Library
It is not my habit, as a member of the faculty now long retired, to submit copy to The Argus. My position for many years has been that your paper is published for and by the undergraduate body and ought not to be a platform for faculty or administrative opinion and communication—with some exceptions. This may be one of them.
When I say it has not been my “habit . . . for many years,” that is something of an understatement. I was here as a faculty member in the German Department from 1955, in the COL for several years from its inception in 1959, as Director of the Freshman Humanities Program until its demise in the early ’70s, and subsequently as an actor in other roles. I have been emeritus for eighteen years. You do the math. You will see that I’ve been vested and invested in Wesleyan University long enough to be your grandfather and to have learned a few things. As far as I can recall, this is the first communication from me to you in 57 years—though I may possibly be mistaken. One forgets.
My many years here have been a pleasure, all in all—an almost unmixed pleasure, but not entirely. I have noted through the years certain decisions taken that I latterly see as errors, great and small. This recent matter of the Art Library may seem to many to be a “small” one, a relative tempest in a teapot. It is not.
It is, to repeat, not a minor dust-up. So far as the important constituents—students and faculty in general, and specifically those in the arts and humanities—are concerned, this might eventually result in a confrontation with a real dilemma.
The Embittered View
By this reading, this constituency finds itself, factually or not, confronted by “corporate,” top-down forces in the form of bottom-line administrators and co-opted faculty (of course I exaggerate here but not only for effect). According to this bitter scenario, students and obedient faculty busy with their studies and research, look over their shoulders and feel the breath of an ever-ascendant and burgeoning administration which calls the shots, tolerates its faculty, and exerts the pressure. (Is there a tiny bit of truth to this?) Put another way, what is afoot here is also somehow symptomatic of the creeping metamorphosis of this fine place from Wesleyan University into WESU, Inc. Perhaps it is a symptom only, a straw in the wind—thus far. But some growths deserve to be nipped in the bud. (An aside: If only certain recent missteps which I forbear to specify here had been recognized in time when the reigning powers perpetrated and paid for—yes, with the help of certain alumni to which malleable administrators now and again tend to be subservient themselves—a variety of architectural blunders, demolished buildings, awkward reconfigurations, and in recent years one or two abominations in the form of new structures on our splendid campus. End of aside.) Let me stick to the subject at hand.
The Realistic but Skeptical View
I quite agree with the feelings of those in the student body with whom I have spoken and whose words I have read (and I fervently hope also of the faculty in art history). A critical number seems to lament the art library’s move. May I try to speak to some of their concerns. Of course something must be done. But must it be this too-easy, less-than-ambitious, insufficiently-digested, precipitous displacement in the guise of “practical” re-integration of “facilities,” when other more inventive solutions are at hand?
Take for example, a real, physical concern: Mind the Gap. Of all people, our art faculty and its students must not be fobbed off with “practicalities,” when they know full well that Connecticut weather half the time does not always allow for a comfortable trek even if only partway across campus to consult a library for a sudden unexpected item in their research (which in their field mostly cannot be solved by Google)—unless we build something like a Congressional subway. That’s but a small example.
Why is Olin the only solution? Simply because we could empty shelves there by dumping dusty old “unused” books? What—the paranoid among us ask—is the urgency, what is the real, underlying motive? Could it be to forestall the sanest solution of all: namely, to resurrect Kevin Roach’s great abandoned plan for the unified Arts Library at the core of the CFA? That way the threshold to Heaven, had it ever been accomplished. Or could we not at least contemplate something like it, smaller, cheaper? No, it’s still far too expensive, say our money-men here, who have elsewhere and otherwise talked a great line for 25 years. Why is it that a preponderance of our sister institutions find it easiest to raise money for the Arts & Humanities, specifically museums and libraries? They have better fundraisers for the Arts and Humanities? Or they know much better where and how to look? And not Wesleyan? To be sure, the CFA was and is wonderful. That was something else, and decades ago.
Not at all incidentally, as The Argus has pointed out, we are at present being asked as faculty and former faculty members, department by department, to review and be complicit in the great “weeding out” (a telling metaphor) of our Olin Library holdings. Why? Is it in small part, perhaps, to make room for the massive injection of art books from their happy and appropriately located home into a designated area of Olin Library? There, unless the hopeful and optimistic plans (your second article) come to fruition, they will sit upon shelves quite removed from the DAC. They will be awkwardly distant from the various constituents of the Art Department, its students, and the many other teaching and researching faculty who have come to cherish the facility and the easy atmosphere and helpful staff there.
The DAC library and its affiliate Print Library (that stays in place, I guess?) are distinctive treasures of the place; I’ve worked there for a very long time. It is hard to transplant a genius loci.
The further point, or quick justification, of this disruption, I hear, is perhaps to provide more space for such things as “hands-on creative-art activity.” If the art library is now too small—and it is-—why not scout out or create larger spaces there instead of commencing obediently and on cue to worry about the constriction and deterioration of its contents and pondering Insta-Fix alternative uses of its spaces. Isn’t that what we used to call “ass-backward” planning? What’s that about the baby and the bath water?
Why not do something to alleviate all that in situ? Spend a little money where it is needed. A beautiful addition, e.g., alongside or at the rear of the DAC, for example? For decades in submissive modesty we now worry suddenly again about climate controls? They are in place everywhere else on campus; what’s the big deal? Too expensive for our National Landmark building and its barn? We have talked about and have been half-promised at least that, and a great deal more, for decades. Ten to a dozen years ago an inspired design for a museum between Alsop and the Infirmary was paid for (through the nose) and then unceremoniously scuttled. (Ironically, at least to my mind, the same firm, after years of award-winning successes subsequent to our measly rejection, has just last month won the competition to redo the already splendid Hood Museum—Dartmouth puts its money where its mouth is.) Makes one wonder.
In Optimistic or at least Hopeful Conclusion with Reservations
Among disiderata, a newly restored Alsop House, a refurbished DAC, and an enlarged and integrated art library of some sort have long been a top priority here. To that our new leadership fervently agreed: we should go back, they said, and finally do something of which Wesleyan would be proud. They must know, I assume, that there are still wonderful possibilities right there, adjunct to or conjunct with the DAC. And heaven knows, the arts and humanities, the old Division I, deserves, richly deserves, its innings. The new administration and the library committee very well realize this and I believe they truly wish to put it into effect. However, this surely cannot mean moving vans from DAC to Olin, ten-cent tag-sales, incinerating or otherwise trashing tens of thousands of “unused” books, thus gaining shelf space, and then relegating (worst case scenario) our distinctive art-books collection to some dim and joyless precinct in the stacks of Olin.
If they still assert that they have done their work and this is the only viable solution; if they think that we, on the side of the angels of course, do not appreciate the inspiration of their conclusions, well, is that it? No, it must not be.
I happily grant them all the benefit of collective doubt. Yet I would still counter—trying as hard as I can to look on the bright side (these are very good people and friends)—I would ask them: even if cozy comfortable nooks, big study rooms, good illumination, accommodations for specialized staff and student assistants, the requisite refreshments area, et cetera, can be inserted somewhere in Olin Library, even if that can be done, why the hell bother? Because “they” cannot otherwise come up with the money to do a proper job at the CFA? Because they suddenly must provide more space for studio arts, or whatever other red herring surfaces? Please. Let’s be honest. (Footnote. I would have thought, especially since the CFA was constructed, that Wesleyan had enjoyed adequate room for the creative arts. . . . unless we are planning on doubling the undergrad body. Now suddenly one of the plans it seems is to revert to the pre-1960’s dispensation and re-jiggering the old Alsop carriage house back into what it was when I came to campus?)
A Bit of History
At this point I feel constrained to condense, for the younger and/or unfamiliar reader of this well-intentioned diatribe, a bit of history:
The Alsop House, before my arrival here, had briefly been the home of Delta Tau Delta whose members treated it kindly. It had earlier been purchased by Wesleyan in 1948 from the Alsop family. When Mr. Davison, as one of your correspondents points out, provided funds for its restoration—and in part also to house and display his greatest of several donations, his splendid collection of works on paper (and further to provide spaces for the Art Department faculty)—, the spaces in the carriage house/barn, which eventually became the library, were converted by Professor of Art Russell (“Butch”) Limbach into a printing studio with accommodations for drawing, painting, photography, and a few sculpture students under the aegis of other creative-arts instructors. It was a congenial and convivial mix of activity and learning, especially when it became the home for the adjunct “hands-on” segment of the inspired Freshman Humanities program. (That was the creative arts component of President Butterfield’s and Honors College Director and celebrated English professor Fred Millet’s Humanities program, taken weekly as a serious, if amateur, enterprise required of all Humanities 1-2 students; in other words all freshmen who had not elected the other option, Western Civilization. It made for collective learning of a unique kind. It was a high point in the history of this institution. Times have changed. And will again. So look out!)
As for the Art Library at the time, that was a helter-skelter affair with books in various offices, some in Olin, and a purported central collection point: the center room, front, on the second floor of Alsop. That soon threatened to collapse under the familiar weight of art books and was reinforced with inserted beams and joists —not the ideal situation, to put it mildly.
To the rescue came one Richard H. Wood, Wesleyan Class of 1958; after a stint in the army and seven years or so working in NYC, he was hired in 1967 to help in the re-cataloging of Olin—from the Cutter and other systems to the Library of Congress system. Eventually uninspired by the routine of the work, he gravitated back to the DAC where he had been an art (mostly studio art) major. By this time, the art history major program was burgeoning. A solution was needed, the books were piling up, but no one wanted them all to go back to Olin—God forbid.
As we knew then and I hope still know, all proper institutions in this country worth their salt, large and small, all those with which Wesleyan compares itself, have their distinct, usually semi-detached art libraries, all close to if not conjoined with the college or university art departments. That is the way things should be. It makes sense.
So, that is when Butch Limbach’s studios in the carriage house were converted into one of the most welcoming and unconventional study spots on the campus, decorated and arranged by Wood, at least half paid for from his own funds, ceramics, rugs and plants. Over the years the place became a focal point of many good things. (He later graduated from that success to become the DAC archivist and assistant to “Puffin” D’Oench, upon the advent of that wondrous Curator. Other gifted and devoted staff followed in the same spirit, notably Librarian Susanne Javorski.) The little art library was born and seems still to hang on by its fingernails.
To complete something alluded to earlier: when Kevin Roach was engaged to design and build the award-winning Center for the Arts, the capstone or rather node of the CFA’s impressive four-square component structures was meant to be a grand, circular Arts Library, the hub of the whole, meant to serve all the arts. That plan never came to fruition . . . alas. Wesleyan was already feeling the pinch, I guess, after its heyday, when for some few precious years it enjoyed having the richest college endowment per student in the country. (There was said to be some place out in California with a few students who beat it out.)
Anyhow, the upshot: no Arts Library. If it had been built we would not be confronted with this regrettable dilemma and its not-quite-ripe solution as proposed.
Finally, if this conundrum is now on its way to being solved amicably and intelligently, and if someone can clarify further, fill me in on recent thinking. If not, let me have convincing counter-arguments to my points. I should really like to be enlightened. Meantime, Angels, stick to your guns.
Arthur S. Wensinger
Wensinger is the Marcus Taft Professor of German Studies and Professor of the Humanities, emeritus.