The New School Art Collection: Greenwich Village’s Overlooked Treasure

April 1, 2015

Upon returning to campus from winter break at the start of the spring semester, New School students inevitably noticed something different about the now year-old University Center. There were new details that were hard to miss. An elongated, blurry vagina overlooks a staircase between the fourth and fifth floors. A man in a Communist Mao suit stands next to Mickey Mouse on the third floor. Marina Abramovic covers half of her face on the fifth floor. Kara Walker’s whimsy silhouettes provoke dark racial undertones above a study nook. A six-and-a-half foot Joseph Beuys greets the second floor landing. The University Center’s walls are no longer bare.

Art now hangs throughout the academic portion of the building, along hallways, through staircases, around seemingly every corner of the spacious six floors. Reminiscent of exactly one year ago, when novelty greeted students exploring the brand-new space, these pieces add a new dimension to the spaces the New School community uses every day. To the surprise of most members of The New School community, however, these pieces are not new. They are part of The New School’s renowned collection of contemporary art, a collection comprised of about 2,000 pieces and considered one of the best contemporary collections of academic institutions in New York. 

The novelty of the numerous pieces seemed to wear off after the first couple of weeks into the semester. When prompted on opinions and responses to the art around campus, especially in the UC, most students responded along the scale from asking, “What art?” to being vaguely aware but indifferent.

One junior opined on the lack of awareness surrounding the collection by saying, “I think we spend so much time here and are all so busy that it just becomes unnoticeable.” The very few responses to the pieces themselves, although expressing admiration for certain works, hinted at a critical undertone on behalf of the students towards the administration.

One sophomore reflected, “I feel like the UC’s is a collection of many probably expensive works from a strange variety of artists, intended to show that the school is a brand.” She added, “The social justice works are great, but what's the point of a Marina Abramovic photograph?”

The majority of student comments about the art at The New School betray a widespread ignorance about the collection itself. Although not widely known in the community, The New School Art Collection is a renowned contemporary art collection. It began with alumna Vera List, who in 1960 gave the school an endowment to begin a collection of art for the school. However, as the New School is a stark contrast to other American universities, the collection was never intended to be adornment for the halls of academia.

Silvia Rocciolo, who, along with Eric Stark, is the current curator of the collection, said of List’s inception of the collection, “The idea was to purchase a work of art every year from the most emerging and contemporary artists  who were reflecting on or speaking to issues of their time– from the sociopolitical to the aesthetic– who were challenging and innovative.” The small endowment from List started a small collection, and 65 years later, that collection has grown to be comprised of about 2,000 works. Although the collection has surely evolved, List’s legacy is still present in the collection, as an estimated quarter of the works that comprise it were gifted by List herself. 

It may be eclectic, but the New School Art Collection is indeed carefully curated to fit a specific mission. Of that mission, Rocciolo explained, “It really began with the generative force of Vera List, who strongly felt that art is another form of investigation, another way of understanding our  world. She funded the initiative as a pedagogical and curricular extension, to enhance the kinds of investigations that were being forged in an unusual institution of progressive thinkers, artists, designers and social scientists.” She added, “I think it’s an incredible privilege to have such a collection. I didn’t go to a university where I had a Kara Walker hanging above my chair! It’s an incredible resource for the faculty and students and a  way to expand  our visual literacy, a way to really look at how artists are working out their ideas. It’s meant to be provocative, inspiring–  a living collection that serves and supports this university’s educational vision.”

Most pieces displayed throughout the New School buildings are accompanied by signage indicating the name of the piece, the artist, and whether the piece was acquired through a gift or donation, or purchased by the New School. When prompted to give their thoughts on the artwork, the skepticism towards the administration that some students voiced no doubt stems from reading that a work was bought by the school. However, public opinion regarding the collection is ignorantly speculative.

“We purchase fairly humbly,” Rocciolo clarified. “We don’t have an endowment. There is an art budget that is generated solely by donations and at times, well thought out deaccessions of works that are either redundant, difficult to maintain or no longer relevant towards the mission of the collection.  When those works are sold, the funds go towards purchasing new works .” Additionally, the University Art Committee, consisting of a few board members, faculty from various divisions of the university, and chaired by the provost, must approve any purchases, donated or gifted work. “It’s not ‘send in your work and we’ll accept it unconditionally–’ we have a very limited space to expose the collection,” said Rocciolo of the donation process. “We have to be rigorous about the kinds of works that enter the collection. Some pieces very clearly don’t work for us and don’t speak to the school’s philosophy on any level– a collection of Roman glass, for example, is not going to work!”

The collection itself is made up largely of contemporary or post-war works. “There are very few pre-1960 works. Most of those are the works that relate to the landmark Joseph Urban 12th street building,” Rocciolo said. “For example, there are the [Jose Clemente] Orozco murals, which are really important and the only Mexican frescos that are left in New York– there are only three in the United States!” The renowned Orozco murals at 66 W. 12th Street, a nod to progressive notions upon which the school was founded, are pre-contemporary exceptions to the cutting-edge contemporary work found around the rest of the school.

Reminiscent yet in every way different from the 1931 commissioned Orozcos are the recent commissions in the University Center. Rita McBride’s geometric, golden brass-covered ductwork extends throughout the UC for 530 linear feet, commissioned by the school to reveal the infrastructure of the building through a design piece by a contemporary artist. Glenn Ligon’s commissioned neon text piece based on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and spanning the perimeter of the Event Café was revealed recently in March. These diverse commissions hint at the curatorial objective of making art a part of life at the New School, and make clear the unwavering commitment different administrations have had to innovative art.  

Despite the collection’s history, academic and artistic resource value, and seemingly recent proliferation due to new spaces, the problem remains of the general lack of awareness of the collection within the wider New School community.

“Eric and I work to expose the collection in so many different ways, but it definitely could stand to be  supported even more ,” said Rocciolo of the collection’s repeated overlooking. “It is fascinating to me that there are people who have worked here for years and have never been in the Orozco room. We all wear our blinders and follow our daily paths engrained by habit. Our biggest challenge is to promote and expose the collection more effectively.” Yet on a positive note, she added, “As far as not noticing, take a look around, there are wall labels…hopefully they will prompt you to further investigate the artist. Google them on your phone! We hope to provoke, stimulate curiosity and promote investigation.” 

Rocciolo and her fellow curator, Eric Stark, are currently working on a variety of ideas to bring the art more front and center in the minds of the community. The possibilities include a book on site-specific works, curatorial slams, better signage, the use of QR codes, and interdivisional events in the fall celebrating the commissions in the UC.

At the end of the day, however, the true value of the art will come from those within the community, whether few or many, who stop to admire, ponder, marvel, analyze, and engage with a work. 

“None of it is made precious,” Rocciolo offered. “The collection is not hidden behind a glass vitrine or a designated white cube. It’s not raised on a plinth, or fetishized. The collection is  very accessible and I think that’s an fantastic resource for our community and beyond”

She added, “Listen, we’re not the Whitney, we’re not MoMA. What’s unique about the collection is how the works reflect and expand on the aspirations, vision and challenges of  the institution itself  and the world we are living in. They’re works that illustrate contemporary art practices, ground us in the present moment, but we also have the privilege of having works that  remind us of our rich history, our legacy.”