Tufts is teeming with art. A lot of it is behind the scenes in Gifford House, where a John Singer Sargent painting hangs on the wall, or locked away in stuffy attics throughout campus, where the hundreds of works in the university’s permanent collection find their homes. But if you look around the corners of Tisch Library or in the lobbies of most academic buildings, you can get a taste of the impressive art collection the university has amassed since its founding in 1852. Last year, an original Salvador Dali sketch was on display in an alcove outside of the Tower Café. Students working and sipping coffee on couches below where it hung may not have even noticed, unless they looked up, squinting at the display label. But the University’s most prominent artwork doesn’t need to be stared at, because it stares at you.
For the last few years, eccentric statues have graced the center of campus. Tufts welcomed the “Colossal AcornHead” by the Vermont artist Leslie Fry in the 2012-2013 school year, and “Ostrich II” by the Parisian artist Quinten Garel, which came to Tufts on loan from a private owner for the 2013-2014 year. Walking down the steps from the library, students are now accustomed to being met with the wide-eyed, hollow gazes of these statues. The five-foot long bronze Acorn Head greeted students with a wizened, stolid expression while this year, the ostrich head looks ahead vapidly with eyes that seem to follow students on their walks to class. Some students question the purpose of these statues’ unavoidable, daily presence in their lives.
“[The ostrich head] is certainly something that calls one’s attention and sparks conversation, but it’s not necessarily something that I need to walk past every day,” says sophomore Josh Zoland.
“They don’t inspire awe,” says another student who prefers to remain anonymous. “I didn’t like the acorn head but at least you could make sense of it. It was like an acorn of knowledge fell from the tree to impart knowledge on Tufts students. But the ostrich doesn’t make any sense. You can’t interpret anything about it.”
At the beginning of the year, sophomore Alison Graham, who works at the Tufts Art Gallery, overheard students say that the ostrich head was a commentary on white supremacy.
“It may have been joking, but I think it’s better than no conversation at all,” she said.
Graham believes that art is most valuable when it is exposed to and scrutinized by the public.
“If you only have art majors looking at something, you’re only going to get the same response to the work.”
In early February, at nearby Wellesley College, the installment of a “hyper-realistic” statue of a sleepwalking man clad in tighty whities garnered uproarious international scrutiny. Part of this attention comes from the attention to lifelike detail of the Brooklyn based artist Tony Matelli’s depiction. From afar, and even up close, the statue looks like a man in such a deep slumber or zombie-like state that even the thin layers of melting snow on his arms, nose, and around his feet fail to awaken him.
Then there’s the issue that this listless, nearly naked man with arms outstretched is on the campus of an all-women’s school.
Over the last month, nearly one thousand Wellesley students signed an online change.org petition to remove “The Sleepwalker” from his position outdoors and into their art gallery space, The Davis Museum. “The main issue with it is that no one consulted students about it being put in a very public space on campus. People say it’s a trigger for those who have been affected by sexual assault,” says Nicole DeCanio, a sophomore at Wellesley.
DeCanio did not sign the petition because she felt the students organizing the campaign against the statue blew the issue out of proportion.
“I think they made a big show out of it when people who felt uncomfortable or unsafe around the statue could have addressed their concerns privately,” she said. “I don’t really want to support the people who are fighting for a cause just to say they’ve done it.”
The petition states: “[We] assert that the undue stress that “The Sleepwalker” causes some of us is enough reason to move it inside the Davis Museum…We welcome outdoor art that is provocative without being a site of unnecessary distress for members of the Wellesley College community.”
On Feb. 20, the college’s president H. Kim Bottomly said moving the statue would destroy the exhibition’s “artistic integrity.” She did note on her blog that the statue led to important conversations about “art, freedom, censorship, and feminism.”
Alison Graham at Tufts says that in a way, the controversy caused by “The Sleepwalker” shows that its artist did a good job. “He was probably trying to evoke some sort of reaction, and he was successful,” she said.
Back at Tufts, gallery workers and curators have also had to consider whether or not to remove the ostrich head statue. It turns out the reaction the ostrich head has evoked will most likely result in its extraction from campus, and is probably not what its creator had idealized. Recent, repeated vandalism of the statue has left it with several foreign paint marks. Graham says this could hurt the university’s ability to get artwork in the future.
“It’s sad because even though people don’t have to care about it or even notice it, they shouldn’t go out of their way to hurt it. It makes it really, really difficult to request loans in the future. All of this goes into our records and insurance policy,” she said.
It seems like on-campus art may cause more controversy than it’s worth—but at the same time, controversy can push students and artists alike outside of the frame of convention.