Fall of 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the List Visual Arts Center, MIT’s renowned contemporary art museum.
In recognition of this historic milestone, the List Center’s four directors since 1985 – Kathy Halbreich, Katy Kline, Jane Farver, and Paul Ha – invited fifteen of the many exceptional artists who have previously exhibited at the List, to provide work for a portfolio that celebrates the critically acclaimed programming presented by the List Center.
Though the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been commissioning murals for its buildings since 1924, it was the establishment of the Hayden Library and Gallery in 1950 that created a center for the visual arts at MIT. Complementing the already existing strengths of MIT, a venue and the required accompanying structures transformed MIT’s relationship to the arts and provided a fertile ground upon which to build. One of the first signs of that potential was the donation of 26 works in 1951 from Standard Oil, which formed the cornerstone of the permanent collection.
When Catherine (Kay) N. Stratton co-founded the Friends of the Arts in 1959 (which evolved into the Art Committee in 1960) it appreciably accelerated the growth of the arts at MIT. Starting in 1960, the Longview Foundation provided funds for building the Permanent Collection. In 1961 the first public sculpture was commissioned (Dimitri Hadzi’s bronze Elmo, funded by Samuel Marx, class of 1907), the Abramowitz Lecture series (founded 1935) was converted in 1961 into a residency for practicing artists, and by 1966, Stratton felt it was time to donate a selection of work to form the beginnings of the Student Loan Collection.
In 1967, Gyorgy Kepes founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) as a venue for cooperative, municipal-scaled projects and invited its first round of Fellows to campus to develop their work in association with the artistic and scientific community at MIT. That same year, Otto Piene (a member of the first round of CAVS Fellows and later the Director of CAVS) represented Germany at the Venice Biennale. The end of the sixties saw a number of ambitious experiments, including Kepes’s Boston Harbor Project, the Symposium on Science and Art (a collaboration between CAVS and the Center for Theoretical Physics), and Kepes’s involvement in the ill-fated 1969 São Paulo Biennial (it was boycotted for political reasons by many countries).
In 1970, Kepes organized a second version of his original São Paolo proposal, Explorations, for the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. He included a large number of CAVS Fellows and it formed a capstone for the first few years of the CAVS fellowships.
In 1972, the Art Committee transformed into the Council for the Arts, Piene returned to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale, and the MIT Historical Collections were founded (later, the MIT Museum).
In 1972 an advisory commission to the Art Committee was named to investigate the possibilities for a new arts and media building. The proposed building would serve the technical and scientific needs of the arts. Originally intended to be called the Center for Arts and Media Technology, when it opened in 1985 it was named the Wiesner Building, holding both the List Visual Arts Center, the Media Lab, and more.
Piene became the director of CAVS in 1974 and in 1977 he created the monumental kinetic sculptural performance Centerbeam for Documenta 6 and again in 1978 on the Mall in Washington, DC.
The Art Committee study from 1972 had found a genuine need for a Center for Arts and Media Technology but also found that the proposal had little formal support, so the idea lay dormant until 1977 when Albert (Abe) and Vera List first approached MIT’s President Jerry Wiesner (1971-1980) about funding a world-class gallery at MIT. The first proposal had the List Gallery included in one of the several new buildings that were being built at the time, but none of the available buildings were suited to it. A second design, a grouping of diverse art spaces—that would have been placed on the same site as the Wiesner building—each supporting different media-specific artistic endeavors, slowly evolved under Wiesner’s careful eye. Wiesner initially thought that a younger architect would be the ideal candidate for the commission; someone emerging rather than someone who was established. He even indicated that he wanted to approach Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles, the designers of Boston’s City Hall.
When still a multi-building site, Wiesner approached I. M. Pei (Class of 1940), and they agreed to work together on the commission. With no clear sources of funding other than the gift from the List family, the first order of business was a visual arts building. The List’s generous gift was met with gratitude from Wiesner but there were additional campus interests that Wiesner needed to consider for the multi-building site. The whole design became complicated, hinging on funding and finding an appropriate architectural plan. After consulting the various client teams on campus, Pei convinced the Institute to build one building and in 1978 with the Lists’ blessing, the plan for the future gallery was combined with Wiesner and Nicholas Negropante’s fledgling plan to create what John de Monchaux, Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, coined as the Media Lab.
In 1978, the Hayden Gallery expanded into the Hayden Corridor Gallery.
Funding for the Media Lab began in 1979 and by the end of 1981 Wiesner and Negroponte had raised $20M of funding primarily from Japanese companies and the various small but growing American personal computing companies (Apple promised $1M for example). During the process of fundraising, it was decided that the building would be named after Jerome and his wife Laya Wiesner, to whom it was dedicated in 1985. In January of 1985, the building was “completed” and October 1985 the building had its official launch event.
The last reminder of the multi-building plan, an Experimental Media Theater was originally located on the other side of the courtyard’s cement arch. Pei convinced Wiesner that this separate theatre space would cost more and be just as easily integrated into a single building. In the end, Wiesner commissioned Pei to design a single building, which today houses the List Visual Arts Center, the MIT Media Lab, The Departments of Architecture’s Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT), the Comparative Media Studies/Writing Program (CMS/W) Program, and the Office for the Arts at MIT, and has a flexible performance black box cube as well as the 200-seat Bartos Theatre.
In 1985 the Wiesner Building was opened and included commissions from Scott Burton, Richard Fleischner, and Kenneth Noland. The Wiesner building is a prime example of MIT’s Percent-for-Art Program, overseen by the List. Then Director of Exhibitions for the CVA, Kathy Halbreich—who would later become the Lists’ first Director—approached Pei to see if he’d be willing to collaborate with a group of artists, so that the resulting Percent-for-Art funds could be used more intelligently. She presented six names to Pei as possible collaborators: Scott Burton, Dan Flavin, Richard Fleischner, Kenneth Noland, Alan Shields, and James Turrell.
After Flavin, Shields, and Turell dropped out of the early stages of the collaboration, Pei worked with Burton on the curving concrete benches on the plaza level of the atrium (Settee, Bench, and Balustrade, 1985 and Granite Bench, 1985), Fleischner on the plaza surrounding the building (Upper Courtyard, 1985 and later Lower Courtyard, 2010), and Noland on the surface of both the interior and exterior of the building (Here-There, 1985).
In 1986 the Council to Review the Arts at MIT was formed and proposed the position of Associate Provost for the Arts, which was created in 1989. Also in 1989, the Visual Arts Program (VAP) was founded (Ed Levine, Founder and Director).
While the Hayden Gallery has been on campus since 1950, in recognition of the generous gift from Vera and Albert List, the gallery was placed under the care of the List Visual Arts Center. This was no accident of philanthropy, as a result of the generous donation from the List family, the List Visual Arts Center and the Hayden Gallery were allowed to emerge from the Hayden Library into a specifically constructed, professional, and flexible gallery space for the small professional staff who had been hired to organize exhibitions and administer MIT’s various art collections. The visual arts at MIT now had a permanent and professional home. Kathy Halbreich became the first director of the List Visual Arts Center with Katy Kline as Curator and Dana Friis-Hansen, Assistant Curator.
With the foundation of the List Visual Arts Center the 1990s and the 2000s were productive decades for the arts at MIT. In 1990, The Max Wasserman Forum was endowed and has enabled sixteen Forums since 1991. Krzysztof Wodiczko (1994-1996 and 2004-2009) and Stephen A. Benton (1996-2003) were directors of CAVS and Uta Meta Bauer was Director of VAP (2005-2009).
In 1999, the List presented Ann Hamilton: Myein at the Venice Biennale. In 2003, the List produced Fred Wilson: Speak of Me as I Am for the 50th Venice Biennale.
At the List, Jane Farver (1999-2012) succeeded Katy Kline (1987-1998) as Director. Helaine Posner (1991-1998) joined as Curator along with Ron Platt (1992-1996) as Assistant Curator, Jennifer Riddell (1996-2000) as Assistant Curator, and Bill Arning (2000-2009) as Curator.
The American Alliance of Museums accredited the List in 1993 and then again in 2004.
In 2010, CAVs and VAP joined together to become the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT) and moved into the Wiesner Building/E15.
Paul C. Ha joined the LVAC as Director in 2011, João Ribas (2009-2013) held the position of Curator. Henriette Huldisch joined as Curator in 2014
Jennifer Allora (MIT Alumna) exhibited with her partner Guillermo Calzadilla at the 2011 Venice Biennale.
In 2012, Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) was established in order to develop cross-disciplinary courses, new research or exhibitions that span the arts, science and and technology including a biennially scheduled international symposium on art and science.
In 2013, the List Projects ehibition program was inaugurated. This exhibition initiative which focuses on the work of emerging artists has featured Gabriel Abrantes (2013), Ken Okiishi (2013), Kambui Olujimi (2013), Pauline Curnier Jardin (2014), and Sergei Tcherepnin (2014).
In 2015 the List will present Joan Jonas at the Venice Biennale.