Just as MIT pushes at the frontiers of scientific inquiry, it is the mission of the List Visual Arts Center, located on the campus of MIT, to explore challenging, intellectually inquisitive, contemporary art making in all media.
The collections distinguish themselves from conventional museum holdings not only by the focus on contemporary art, but also by public visibility. The Institute itself has become the museum, with works of art sited either outdoors or in offices, lobbies, libraries, corridors, and conference rooms, thus becoming integrated into daily life and working situations of those affiliated with MIT and of MIT's many visitor populations—visiting scholars, students, parents, alumni, and friends.
While the first permanently installed works of art at MIT were the decorative murals painted in 1924 and 1930 by Edwin H. Blashfield for the Walker Memorial (Building 50), MIT did not begin actively collecting and exhibiting art until decades later. At that time, former MIT president James Killian, with former Director of Libraries and, later, Dean of Humanities and Social Studies, John Burchard, provided the impetus for the establishment of a visual arts program on campus. Killian described his position toward the arts as follows:
"The great universities have long sought to achieve an environment where distinguished art, architecture, and landscaping are not just embellishments or luxuries, but are an essential and natural part of the process of education and growth...Just as students seek out the foremost in science and engineering they should have the opportunity to engage and come to understand the best in the arts."
Although best known for annually presenting five to eight changing exhibitions, most accompanied by catalogues, the List Visual Arts Center is active in many areas. The Percent-for-Art Program is developing at an extraordinary rate, as internationally-known artists and architects collaborate on the many new buildings being constructed on campus. The staff of the List Visual Arts Center maintains and develops a Permanent Collection that includes dozens of publicly-sited sculptures by such artists as Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, Pablo Picasso, and Alexander Calder, and hundreds of paintings, prints, and photographs located throughout campus buildings and offices. Each year more than 500 works of art, primarily prints and photographs, are borrowed by MIT students through a highly popular Student Loan Art Program.