The Case For Residential Art

Our Living-Learning Community Needs To Reflect The Students It Houses

By Lars Dreith | | April 13, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

As was aptly described to me by a friend: “East is the most motel-like dorm on campus.” There is little to pay attention to in East’s public spaces beyond the lifeless, fluorescent-bleached stairwells and blank hallways. The aesthetic impact can be summed up into one word: oppressive.


Despite this aesthetic impact—as is the case with every dorm on campus—East houses creative students with a diverse set of interests. If you walk into nearly any room in East, walls are decorated in ways that reflect the students who live there. Some students drape tapestries; some students collect posters, and many don their walls with string lights.


During my time living in East this year, I went out of my way to use the bathroom on the second-floor of Kensington House. It was one of the few public spaces in the dorm that had character. A character that can be best-described as “saturated with ducks,” as Instagram account @decafelids puts it. They were everywhere: taped to the walls, hanging on the underside of soap dispensers, resting on the countertop. Little rubber ducks, everywhere you looked.


I played no part in putting these rubber ducks up (I swear), nor did I relate to this installation in any substantial way. Its presence and impact on the space, however, was substantial, and definitely appreciated. I went out of my way to use that bathroom, and I am certain that I was not the only one who did.


This past Winter Term, I visited my friend at MIT. They lived on the fifth floor of the east parallel in East Campus, a dorm well-known for its love of pyrotechnics.


This was the first time that I fully appreciated East Campus for the life that it breathes into MIT. East Campus—and other dorms like it—are the petri dishes of long-lasting traditions & strange cultural quirks on MIT’s campus. Much like Greenwich Village, Manhattan in the mid-twentieth century, East Campus draws a unique crowd, and proximity to one another creates an environment where creativity thrives.


MIT is one of few schools in the nation that permits students to paint murals on the walls of their dorms. The purpose of these murals is listed in their Student Handbook:


to “allow for creative self-expression”

to “create a greater sense of comfort… and connection to the dorm”

to “foster camaraderie and bolster support networks”

to “help sustain lasting culture”


Nearly every space in the halls of East Campus is plastered with murals. Because of this, anyone who enters the hallways of East Campus can sense the innovation and creativity that emanates from it within minutes. It should be noted that not all dorms in MIT permit murals; this way, the accessibility needs of all students are taken into account.


Oberlin currently has no mural policy. Rather, our mural policy is that there are no murals. In its space, we have the “Temporary Art Installation” policy, which allows students to put up art in public spaces on campus.


As it currently exists, the application process for this resource is flawed. The application is paper, requires signatures from three different, intimidating administrative bodies on campus, and asks for thorough analyses of life-safety issues without there being a clearly-defined point person.


All of the points listed above serve as deterrents for students taking advantage of this policy. For students hoping to put up a Temporary Art Installation, the steps of printing out the form, describing life-safety implications, and communicating with and stopping by various offices around campus are non-negligible and time-consuming. On top of all this, it can be difficult for an applicant to know exactly which administrators’ signatures they need to obtain, since the application merely provides that a Building Administrator (who is the building administrator?), the Hall Council (what if there is no hall council?), Security (who, exactly, in Safety and Security?), and Facilities Operations (who, exactly, in Facilities Operations?) sign off.


In order to improve this application process for increased accessibility to more students on campus, I propose that we make four amendments to the existing Temporary Art Installation policy and application:


First, we digitize the application. By using an online form, the application can be immediately sent to all of the required signatories. This would remove the bureaucratic barriers on the applicant’s part, encouraging more students to apply. This would also remove some of the ambiguity regarding which administrators signatures the applicant needs to obtain, since the online form could be configured to send the application to the appropriate administrators in their respective offices.


Second, we provide an expedited process for art installations in residential buildings. Security and Facilities Operations sign off on art installation applications to ensure that life-safety concerns have been properly considered. If there are designated spaces where life-safety implications have already been considered, students can install art using pre-specified materials and mediums, requiring only the Building Representative and the Hall Council (if applicable) sign off.


Third, the application, whether paper or digital, needs to be reformatted to better reflect why each signatory is included. It needs to made clear to the applicant that Security and Facilities Operations are signing off exclusively regarding the life-safety implications and that the Building Representative and Hall Council are signing off regarding aesthetic and cultural value.


Fourth, dorms need to have the option of “indefinite” art installations. These art installations would remain up unless Security or Facilities deemed them a life-safety concern or the Building Representative or Hall Council deemed them archaic. This would allow dorms to shape their own culture over a longer period of time, helping to bring together like-minded, passionate people.


One of the main draws of Oberlin, for me, was the sense of creativity and innovation I encountered on campus when I visited. Through investing in a more thorough art installation policy, Oberlin would be investing in a quality that has definitely drawn many to this school.

Contact contributing writer Lars Dreith at

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