Student Stories

Smart Museum’s Art to Live With returns to campus, promotes immersive art experiences

63-year-old program cultivates unique enjoyment of art by allowing students to display original works in dorm rooms

On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 3, dozens of College students watched the sun rise over UChicago’s Smart Museum of Art while talking and playing games on the sidewalk outside. Many had camped out overnight, and some even longer, waiting for the museum to open at 8 a.m. so that they could select a piece of art to temporarily take home for free.

The Smart Museum’s Art to Live With (A2LW) program is a long-standing UChicago tradition that gives students the opportunity to adorn their dorm rooms with original, specially designated artworks for the duration of the academic year. With only 140 pieces available on a first-come, first-served basis in the annual Art Match, many students eagerly wait in line for the opportunity to participate and claim their favorite pieces. Today, works by famous artists such as Marc Chagall, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso temporarily reside in dorm rooms across campus. 

The program began in the fall of 1958, following conversations between artist and dean of students Harold Haydon and alumnus art collector Joseph Randall Shapiro who wanted to provide an art immersion experience to students. It was one of America’s first university art rental programs. As Shapiro famously said, “The best way to become acquainted with art—and to appreciate it—is to live with it.”

While the program was popular through the 1970s, it was discontinued due to a lack of funding in the late 1980s. Thanks to a gift from University trustee Gregory Wendt, AB’83, it was brought back on a yearly basis in 2017 (with 2020 being the only exception, due to COVID-19).

“After the year we all had [with COVID-19], one of the most memorable parts of restarting the Art Match this year was the chance for all of us to come back together,” said Emily Edwards, manager of museum affairs and Art to Live With. “To be able to resume in-person programming was really special.”

Edwards, who originally joined the Smart Museum team in 2017 to help bring the program back, said it has a variety of goals centered around student involvement. 

"It’s about how an academic art museum in the 21st century can engage its students, how a gallery like the Smart Museum can have a life outside the building walls, and how the program can act as a conduit to bring students into the Smart Museum and to explore what else it has to offer,” she said.

The collection available for free rental at this year’s Art Match included many works that were part of the original collection from the 1980s, as well as new pieces chosen by a Student Advisory Committee.

The festivities started on Sept. 30 at the “Art-B-Q,” a barbecue that kicked off a pop-up exhibition of the works available at the Match. The event allowed students to get acquainted with art opportunities on campus, as well as scope out their favorite pieces in hopes of taking one home a few days later.

Many students took to camping out in lines overnight the Saturday before the Art Match, with some setting up as early as Friday afternoon.

First-year student Austin San Juan was the first in line, waiting a record-breaking 43 hours for the doors to open with two friends who joined him shortly afterwards. San Juan said he fondly remembers playing card games, saving his friends’ places in line as they all took turns going to the dining hall, and getting to know each other better. 

By Saturday night, more and more students began to line up, participating in activities sponsored by the museum until the selection began. While they waited, students enjoyed tamales and Insomnia Cookies and participated in karaoke contests. They also took part in art-related activities, including creating Lotería-inspired screen-printed tote bags designed by third-year Sarahi Molina, an intern with the Smart. 

"As impactful as living with art is for students, one of their lasting memories is coming together with new friends and experiencing the Smart Museum in such a unique way at the beginning of the academic year,” Edwards said.

San Juan selected Emblèm by Wilfredo Lam from the collection to take home. Lam is a Cuban painter, and coming from a Cuban background, San Juan was struck by this work, describing it as “visually mysterious.” It was his first choice artwork. 

“I wanted something I could look at and not understand right away; something I could discover over time,” San Juan said. 

Austin San Juan holding his selection
Austin San Juan, who waited a record-breaking 43 hours, selected Emblèm by Wilfredo Lam from the collection to take home.

San Juan, who is hoping to pursue a major in art history and work in museums someday, said one added benefit of the program is that students can learn about and engage with works by artists they may not have otherwise encountered.

“I support the program’s vision of making art more accessible because on a human level, it is important to have as much interaction with art as possible,” San Juan said. “The importance of expanding the bounds of art and making it available is extremely valuable and something I hope to do in the future.”