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June 15, 2022

At MSU, public art is essential

Michigan State University’s campus is a canvas for sparking new ideas, deepening understanding and cultivating a sense of belonging

Across the 5,300-acre campus of Michigan State University are more than 500 academic buildings, abundant park-like green spaces and the banks of the Red Cedar River. Interspersed throughout this landscape is a vast collection of public art, available and accessible to Spartans, community members and visitors year round.

At MSU, the arts are “irreplaceable instruments of knowledge” and are embedded in the university’s academic mission. One group ensuring this mission endures is the Public Art on Campus Committee. Established in 1999 by the MSU Board of Trustees, the committee makes recommendations on the acquisition, placement and maintenance of public art on campus. MSU dedicates one half of one percent of the cost of major renovations or new buildings (excluding utilities) to public art, capped at $250,000 per project. 

“We talk about campus as being a living-learning laboratory and public art is part of that,” says Judith Stoddart, associate provost for University Collections and Arts Initiatives, who heads the Public Art on Campus Committee. “MSU’s Arts Initiative takes into account how the arts are integrated into daily life on campus for people who live, work, study and visit here.”

Since its inception, the committee has guided the installation of 153 pieces of public art on campus, including paintings, lithographs, photographs, interior and exterior sculptures, architectural glass, tile mosaics and a digital projection installation. And that’s just a portion of the trove of art on campus.

“Overall, we probably have 800 to 900 public art assets across the campus that were either part of the Works Progress Administration or reliefs on buildings that are part of the architecture, or from colleges that purchased pieces of art or were gifted artwork,” says Stephen Troost, campus planner.

Many of these works of art can be viewed on MSU’s campus art map.

Searching for works that reflect their environment

As the campus landscape changes with new facilities, so does its collection of art. Recent building projects include the STEM Teaching and Learning Facility  a new academic building that repurposes parts of the former Shaw Lane Power Plant  whose digital art installation uses algorithms to project colorful bursts of activity representing campus power usage onto the interior walls of the building’s former boiler. In the morning, the swirling figures move slower in cooler tones and as the day progresses and energy demands increase, the art picks up speed and its colors skew warmer.

Infinity Room, a digital art projection by Refik Anadol in the STEM Teaching and Learning Facility
“Infinity Room” / Installed: 2021 / Artist: Refik Anadol / Material: Digital projection / Location: STEM Teaching and Learning Facility / Refik Anadol, an artist from Istanbul, Turkey, focuses on the aesthetics of machine intelligence. Anadol’s body of work “addresses the challenges, and the possibilities, that ubiquitous computing has imposed on humanity, and what it means to be a human in the age of AI. He is intrigued by the ways in which the digital age and machine intelligence allow for a new aesthetic technique to create enriched immersive environments that offer a dynamic perception of space.”

“We’re attempting to be more thoughtful and considerate of the location and also the academic nature and goals of that environment,” says Steven Bridges, senior curator and director of curatorial affairs at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU. “The process of art selection is increasingly dialogical, based on conversations not only with deans and directors of particular units on campus but also faculty and students who work and learn in those units.”

This fall, a project called STEAM Power will bring together artists, faculty and graduate students in residence around the topic of STEM that will be centered in the STEM Teaching and Learning Facility. It will explore new ways of teaching and learning in STEM disciplines.

There are few places you won’t find art on campus and the materials are often surprising. At the MSU Surplus Store & Recycling Center, four sculptures made of scrap tires by artist Chakaia Booker adorn a bright orange wall inside the building. The facility is a fitting home with its goal of reducing the amount of university materials that go to the landfill.

Sculptures made of recycled tires by artist Chakaia Booker
“Bate, Manhattan Attitude, Peak Season and Solar Flare” / Installed: 2009 / Artist: Chakaia Booker / Material: Recycled rubber and wood / Location: Surplus Store & Recycling Center / Artist Chakaia Booker has worked almost exclusively with tire materials since the early 1990s. To be environmentally friendly, she reclaims old tires from auto repair shops, junk yards and roadsides. Her rubber and tires are transformed into fluid shapes, giving them a new life, energy and meaning. The tires themselves often are metaphors for aesthetic, political and economic concerns.
Caliban by Jackie Saccoccio
“Caliban” / Installed: 2020 / Artist: Jackie Saccoccio / Material: Oil and pastel / Location: Billman Music Pavilion / The late abstract artist Jackie Saccoccio said of her work, Caliban, “I hope visitors will bring the idea of improvisation, so readily accessible in music, to this painting as they take in the staccato of the marks weaving through webbings and drips.” The large-scale painting is installed in the Billman Music Pavilion, the 37,000-square-foot addition to the Music Building that opened in the fall of 2020.

Building a diverse portfolio of art

MSU is home to a diverse community, so when determining what gets added to the collection, representation of artist backgrounds and themes matters.

“We have pieces by artists of color, up-and-coming artists, Michigan-based artists as well as faculty, students and alumni,” says Troost. “Some people don’t see themselves represented on the campus. Art can help do that.”
Unity III sculpture by artist Charles McGee
“Unity III” / Installed: 2007 / Artist: Charles McGee / Material: Powder-coated aluminum / Location: Energy and Automotive Research Building / The late renowned Detroit-based Black artist Charles McGee’s "Unity III" depicts people coming together and the inherent beauty of this synergy. The artist’s life was rooted in the belief that people must connect and work together, not alone, to achieve outcomes that benefit all, including world peace, and that strength and progress will emerge out of connectivity rather than individualism.
Aabiji Bidemigan Bimaadiziwin by Anishinaabe artist Jason Quigno
“Aabiji Bidemigan Bimaadiziwin” / Installed: 2019 / Artist: Jason Quigno / Material: Limestone / Location: Cook-Seevers Hall / Jason Quigno is an Anishinaabe, Mukwa Ndodem, contemporary stone sculptor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As an Anishinaabe artist, Quigno tells stories of his people through stone to keep their memory alive for thousands of years. His limestone piece resides in Cook-Seevers Hall, a collaborative space for graduate students within the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics.
Recovery mural by Beverly Fishman
“Recovery II” / Installed: 2022 / Artist: Beverly Fishman / Material: Urethane paint / Location: Broad Art Museum / As part of MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum’s 10-year anniversary celebration in 2022, the museum commissioned the installation of two murals by Detroit-based artist Beverly Fishman. Installed by museum staff and art students, the murals depict bright geometric shapes that are a commentary on the health and pharmaceutical industries, especially during the COVID pandemic, when these pieces were commissioned. The murals are on exhibit until August 7. An exhibition about public art in the Greater Lansing area runs through August 23 at the Broad Art Museum.

Highlighting Spartan talent

MSU alumni, faculty and students all have left their art footprints on campus.

When the committee has reserve funds, it uses those to make an educational opportunity out of an art commission. One well-traveled example is the bridge behind the Main Library. When the time came to replace the railings a few years ago, landscape architect Deb Kinney proposed the idea of making the railings a piece of art. The public art committee provided funding and created a student competition, partnering with arts and humanities units across campus. Students could submit their sketches, which were reviewed by a subset of the committee, and the winner received a stipend.

Library bridge with steel artwork called Reflect-Fall by Gavin Kata
“Reflect-Fall” / Installed: 2017 / Artist: Gavin Kata / Material: Stainless steel / Location: Main Library bridge / The winning student entry for the Library bridge railings was created by former interior design student Gavin Kata and reflects on the Red Cedar River during the fall season. Kata’s original artwork was transformed into perforated stainless-steel panels that come alive as light passes through the composition. Originally from Rochester Hills, Kata graduated from MSU in 2018.
The Phoenix, a mixed-metal sculpture by MSU alumnus Richard Tanner
“The Phoenix” / Installed: 2021 / Artist: Richard Tanner / Material: Mixed metals / Location: Intramural East Building / MSU studio art alumnus Richard Tanner’s sculpture “The Phoenix” rises out of a field adjacent to the Intramural East Building. Tanner’s piece incorporates themes of reflection and new beginnings. The metal sculpture, which began to take shape in 2019 with a focus on athletics, eventually found a double meaning during the pandemic and now serves as a symbol of hope.
Accrescere II by Jae Won Lee
“Accrescere II” / Installed: 2010 / Artist: Jae Won Lee / Materials: Porcelain, beads, filament / Location: South Hubbard Hall / MSU professor of art, art history and design Jae Won Lee’s Accrescere series, pronounced “a-kri-sheer” is based on a Latin word meaning to increase, swell or grow. Accrescere II features strands of porcelain parts that float in nebulous fields, depicting a fleeting, floating landscape and a lyrical resonance of passing time while conveying a wintery landscape.
Collecting the Future by Alisa Henriquez
“Collecting the future” / Installed: 2014 / Artist: Alisa Henriquez / Materials: Oil on canvas / Location: MSU Union Engagement Center / MSU professor of art, art history and design Alisa Henriquez created a unique piece to reflect the values of the North Residential Neighborhood Engagement Center and the university. Henriquez challenged herself to find elements that represent the natural, built and technological environment of our modern world, then used these images to reference the energy and excitement embodied by the university.

“I hope people who see the art on campus interpret it in a way that’s personal for them and feel like they really have some ownership," says Stoddart. "This art is for everyone.”


By: Meredith Mescher, Derrick Turner and Nick Schrader

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