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Rent-a-Renoir

Oberlin students surrender sleep and civility to get their own piece of the masters.

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Anything for their art: 100 bleary-eyed students wait in - line. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Anything for their art: 100 bleary-eyed students wait in line.

Philip Alejo kneels on the floor of the Allen Art Museum, his dark brown hair flopping into his eyes as he peruses rows of works by Picasso and Chagall and Warhol.

With a soft-tipped pencil, the Oberlin College senior carefully maps out the names and locations of the pieces he likes best. Tomorrow morning, he and almost 150 other students will storm the museum for their chance to rent a masterpiece. Philip hopes to bring home a Goya -- he's really into the artist's black-and-white bullfighting sketches. Unfortunately, he says with a sigh, so are lots of other people. So he continues to poke through the pieces, their Plexiglas frames making a clanking noise as they thump against one another.

In the corner, a security guard grimaces at the sound.

"I've been here for 13 years, this is my 26th art rental, and I still don't understand how we could do this," says guard Mike Gilbert, eyeing the works with fatherly devotion. "From a security view, I want to say, 'Wait, you can't take that out -- that's a Renoir!' But every year, it somehow works out." He shakes his head in wonderment.

Every year since 1940, Oberlin students have been able to take home one or two of the campus museum's rentable paintings for a semester. All that's required is a five-dollar bill, a student ID, and a lot of tenacity. In years past, students have been known to scale walls, camp out in the courtyard, and skip classes in order to be first in line.

"Call me an optimist, but I'm not worried about the actual art rentals," says Lucille Stigler, the eight-year director of the program. What she is worried about is rain. Her intense blue eyes drift toward her office window.

"We wrap the rentals in plastic bags. But plastic can tear, and plastic sits out in the rain." She sighs. "I keep checking the Weather Channel."

The program was started by Ellen Johnson, an Oberlin professor who wanted students to experience art firsthand, in a way that's impossible in a museum. She persuaded the college to finance the nation's first rentable-art program. The collection now numbers about 412 pieces, most of them donated by artists and benefactors.

Remarkably, in the history of the program, there have been no thefts or lost works.

"Sometimes they'll come back and the painting might have fallen off the wall and the frame will be broken or the glass will be cracked," Stigler says. "But it's all minor damages."

And the rules for renting?

"You know, I don't actually know," she says, arching her brow. That's because tradition holds that the first person in line each year gets to establish the rules. "I haven't checked what they are this year yet. Maybe I should."

Scotch-taped on a column outside the museum's back entrance is a sheet of paper with "The Rules" typed out across the top. Sign-ups are to begin at 4 a.m. the day before the event, it reads. Roll call will take place every hour on the hour, starting at 5 p.m. the night before, and the final call comes at 8 a.m. -- an hour before the scramble begins. (Art is rented on a first-come, first-served basis.)

In previous years, the rules required students to reserve spots before the courtyard was even open, inspiring some to forgo sleep and jump off roofs in order to be the first to sign up. The three senior housemates who coauthored this year's legislation decided to ease up.

"We thought about extending it through the night," Monica Lee says of the roll call, "but decided that we really wanted to sleep."

"I think the hard-core art enthusiasts will be disappointed," says Stigler. "They'll find this too easy. The idea with the art rental is that you're supposed to do anything -- anything -- to get the art."

The job of rules enforcement generally goes to their author. So at 5 the night before, Monica, a round-cheeked girl wearing a black skirt, black shirt, and bright blue hair bow, started calling out the names. Those who did not respond were given a big fat "A" for absent. Two of those, and your name gets crossed out. These lists are taken very seriously.

At 8 a.m. on the big day, about 100 bleary-eyed students show up for the last roll call. They clutch Styrofoam cups of coffee and prop open heavy eyelids, waiting for their names to be called.

At 8:50 two freshmen walk by. "Is this where we sign up for art rental?" one asks.

The others look at them indignantly.

"You can't just sign up now," one finally responds, hands on hip. "Well, you can, but you're not supposed to. Didn't you see the rules? Why do you think we look like this?"

"Oh." The girl scans the list for the first time, and her face darkens. "How were we supposed to know we had to camp out to get a spot? That's not fair," she complains.

The veteran renters only shrug. "You can still get art," one says. "Just not the best ones."

The freshman stamps her foot. "But I really wanted a Picasso!"

At 9, the first five are let into the museum. They run up the stairs and dash over to the locations they had navigated the day before.

Dana Cohen, the first to check out, chooses two prints from relatively unknown artists, both of them awash in dark, swirling colors. "I've had one of them before, and I just find them both really calming," she says.

Another student grabs a work by Roy Lichtenstein that museum guards assumed would go quickly this year: a cartoonish print of the Oval Office inscribed with the words "A New Generation of Leadership."

"It feels like I've won the lottery!" says Scott Grogan, as he makes off with the Lichtenstein.

Picasso doesn't go till the third round; by then, Philip Alejo's Goya is gone.

He reluctantly searches for his next few choices.

"I like them OK," he says, checking out an illustration by Daumier and a print by Tamayo. "But next semester I'm getting here earlier."

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