It beats yard sale finds, outstrips velvet paintings, and leaves poster art in the dust.

By any measure of the imagination, the Student Loan Art Program inhabits a universe far from traditional student art fare. Original Andy Warhols, Claes Oldenburgs, Robert Rauschenbergs, Marc Chagalls, and Richard Serras are among the top-quality art works that decorate students’ walls and lives, thanks to the loan program organized by the List Visual Arts Center. Each year, the program gives students the opportunity to win a lottery to borrow, at no cost, one of 300 signed, framed original pieces by contemporary artists.

“I love it,” says George Katsoufis, contemplating the original Joan Miro print hanging alongside the Monet, Kandinsky and Matisse posters in his dorm bedroom. A graduate student majoring in ocean systems management and naval architecture, Katsoufis says the “five-dollar posters just don’t stand up to the Miro. Poster art doesn’t show you the feeling. I find myself looking at [the Miro] every day, more than all the [reproductions]. Depending on my mood, it’s never the same twice. And,” he adds, the abstract Miro, a swirl of circles and figures “is a good conversation piece.”

The Student Loan Art Program, begun in 1966, has generated conversation well beyond the confines of MIT dorms and student apartments. Michelle Hlubinka, a graduate student in the Media Arts and Sciences Program, heard the buzz about the program eight years ago while an undergraduate art major at Yale. “I was impressed. MIT uses art rather than just having it in art galleries or in isolated corners of campus where art history majors have access to it,” says the temporary owner of a Josef Albers print of three yellow squares, which hangs in her office. “Yellow is by far my favorite color. My roommates make fun of how much I like yellow,” she says, adding, “It’s a great privilege [to have the Albers]. I’ll probably never be able to afford original artwork, so I could have it hanging in my office, where I can put my nose right up against the glass, late at night when no one is looking.”

The Philosophy

Engagement with the art — perhaps not precisely this sort — was the program’s motivating philosophy, says List Registrar John Rexine. “The idea was to make art available to the broadest possible constituency and engage students, particularly at a technical institute, in a way they wouldn’t otherwise engage with the art.”

Most of the List’s 1300-piece permanent collection is sited in public spaces on campus. The Student Loan Art Program comprises 800 objects, of which 300 are loaned out in any given year through a lottery that averages 525 entries. For two weeks in September, prints, photographs, and posters by 315 artists are exhibited salon-style in the List Gallery, allowing students to pick their top three choices. While art-lending programs exist at other local universities, including Harvard and Brandeis, MIT’s program is “unique in that it is actively promoted through the exhibition. The other schools just have a bunch of bins which students can rifle through,” says Rexine.

Response to the loan program has been positively eyebrow-raising. “Students can’t believe it at first — that they get to keep the artwork for a year,” says Hiroko Kikuchi, museum educator at the List. The works, signed originals, “mostly come back in good shape. We haven’t had a big problem with damage.” More important, says Kikuchi, is the impact the program has on borrowers. “The program seems to open a venue for students to engage with and understand art differently. They feel more comfortable talking about art among themselves in their everyday lives. They’re proud to ‘own’ art for a year. Some start learning more about art. Some develop very personal attachments to the art.”

Such is the case with Sharotka Godzina, a third-year Ph. D. student in biology who has participated in the program for two years. This year, the black-and-white still life of laboratory glassware by Tony Cragg, displayed on her bedroom wall, “reminds me of how fond I am of science and how aesthetic science can be.” Hanging with ‘Bleu, Blanc and Rouge’ movie posters and three black-and-white photographs she herself shot, the loaned glassware sketch, says Godzina, “is nourishing my affinity for art.”

This was a key goal of Kay Stratton, wife of former MIT President Julius Stratton and the person for whom the program was created to honor. “The idea of balance between science and the humanities is totally important, and it’s particularly important for a place like MIT. I don’t think you can be a good engineer if you don’t know what beauty is,” she says, adding she can’t “imagine life without art. It adds another dimension to life — happiness, joy, serenity, excitement. It’s the part of life that gives enormous satisfaction.”