Art for the People, One Loan at a Time

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Entrance to the art world can come at a great cost. Notwithstanding a graduate degree from a top-tier institution teetering at $100,000 or the world’s most expensive painting selling just last month for over $450 million, the art world and its systems are insular and highly coded. As José Ruiz, a curator, creative laborer, and the Director of Curatorial Practice at MICA, said, “There is a barrier of entry to go to the National Gallery of Art, even if it’s free.”

So consider the idea of art as part of a city’s public works—a component of the infrastructure that is essential to our existence as a society. Beltway Public Works (BPW) is premised upon precisely this idea: that art, like water or public transportation, is a civic resource. Led by Ruiz, Natalie Campbell, James Huckenpahler, and Patrick McDonough along with a growing list of artists, curators, and educators in the Beltway region, BPW launched a Lending Library at Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) in D.C. this fall.

On a bright orange background at the edge of the gallery reads, “The Lending Library seeks to become a dispersed, people’s museum of the national capital region, championing the role of contemporary art in the lives of Beltway residents by making challenging, inventive artworks for short-term loan.”

A ledge circumscribes the space where the circulating collection of 25 artworks originally sat. What remains now are paper pockets stamped with the BPW logo, inside of which are typed check-out cards that list the artist and title and describe the works, and photographs of the works in the spaces where they have been installed. Available on a first-come-first-served basis, each work is loaned free-of-charge for six months-at-a-time, the aim is to reach new audiences while making art more accessible to Beltway residents.

“We want to reach people that haven’t had too much of a connection with art,” Ruiz said. “In a way, we’re educating first-time collectors about what it’s like to live with art and be with art in a domestic sense. Once the work is gone, they will feel that void.”

In the initial phase, BPW prioritized public locations and placed works where they might have greater influence. Wesley Clark’s “Which Game We Playin’,” a combination chess and checkers board, was placed in Bread for the City, a D.C.-based non-profit that provides food, clothing, medical care and other social services to low-income residents. Clark’s piece, which speaks to power struggles regarding gentrification and displacement, reads differently in such a context than it would in a traditional gallery or museum. “What’s the narrative once you place a certain artists’ work in a certain context?” Ruiz asks.


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