The Wonderful World of Non-Traditional Collections: Spotlight on Art-To-Go [Series]

This is the second installment in a series which aims to explore unusual or non-traditional collections in libraries. You can read Chezlani’s first installment, highlighting the non-traditional seed collection at Honoka’a Public Library, here.

Full disclosure: I’m not only a library person. I’m a museum person as well. Growing up in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Museum of Art was my second home. As a kid, I ran up and down the stairs of the museum, trying to see every piece of art in a single trip. This is why I was thrilled when I got my first library job at the Iowa City Public Library (ICPL), where art covers most of the west wall on the first floor, stacked on top of each other and… available for check-out? It is at this library where public librarian Candice Smith curates the Art-To-Go collection. I had the honor of interviewing Candice about this unusual collection.

Chloe Waryan (CW): So, you’re in charge of the Art-To-Go collection at ICPL. Could you tell me a little about this collection and how it came to be?

Candice Smith (CS): The Art to Go collection was started long before I came here, sometime in the mid-1960s. It started with maybe a dozen framed posters that a patron gave us. We added to that collection by purchasing and framing more posters, and then eventually added the Art Purchase Prize contest, which is where we get the original art in the collection. Now, it has about 400 pieces, and is roughly half posters, half original art.

CW: What is your background and how are you directly involved with this collection?

CS: I don’t have an arts background at all, I majored in Anthropology and have an MLS. I do enjoy art and art history, and I visit a lot of museums, but I’m definitely a spectator as opposed to being a creator or historian/intellectual. We have an Art Advisory Committee that is made up of six people who are involved in the arts in some way (artists, teachers, museum employees, etc.), and I rely on them to help me with choosing original art for the collection. I act as the Library liaison with the Committee, setting up meetings when needed and coordinating the Art Purchase Prize. Aside from that, I do choose the posters that we add, and deal with any mending that comes along by taking it to be repaired. I am also responsible for keeping an eye on the collection, looking for damaged pieces and removing items based on low circulation.

CW: Could you tell me a little about the Committee’s process behind choosing the original artwork?

CS: We have the annual Art Purchase Prize contest, where we solicit original art from local artists. I pick the dates for the contest and get all the flyers and posters ordered, and receive the entries from artists who participate. Then, the Committee and I meet for two rounds of judging, with the first round being to go through all of the entries. These are digital images of the artworks that we start with, and the Committee only knows the titles, mediums, sizes and prices, but not the artist names. The Committee views them several times and discusses all of them. At the end of the judging, they will have picked the items they would like to see in person. I notify the artists and they bring in the finished pieces, and then the Committee members come in to see them and, basically, say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I tally up the votes and go from there, working within my budget.

CW: What are some of the most popular pieces in the collection? Do you have a favorite piece?

CS: There are a lot of popular pieces—over half of the collection is checked out at any time! I would say that, in the poster area, Impressionism is very popular, as well as individual artists like Mucha, Warhol, Van Gogh, and Hopper. Of the original art, popular artists include Bekah Ash and Claudia McGehee, and other items that people seem to like deal with local subjects, such as Suzanne Aunan’s ‘The Big Night Game’ (a lithograph depicting a [University of Iowa] football game) and Han-In Huang’s ‘Kent Park Autumn Reflection’ and ‘Iron Bridge at Kent Park.’ There are so many pieces that go out a lot! Personally, I really like a photograph titled ‘Perro Ovejero’ by Oscar Urizar, and Odilon Redon’s ‘Méduse.’

CW: Do other libraries have an Art-To-Go collection? What do you find most rewarding and most frustrating about an unusual/non-traditional collection like Art-To-Go?

CS: There are other libraries that have collections like this, but not a large number. However, I do get calls now and then from libraries that are starting one up—I was contacted earlier this year by a librarian in New Orleans who was involved in starting a collection as well as a contest.

I think what is most rewarding is working with a collection that really encapsulates how a library and a community can work together and benefit each other. Between the contest where we purchase art from local artists, and the Committee members who donate their time and expertise, and the collection being so popular with our patrons, it really is a great thing to get to be a part of. While I can’t think of anything that is frustrating, I can say it is (still) a really hard thing to see works that get added to the collection, that for one reason or another, just don’t click with our users.

CW: How does ICPL connect with the art community of Iowa City?

CS: The contest is definitely one of the most obvious ways we connect with the art community. However, I think we are also valuable in how we offer them a space to hold arts-related events, big and small—from using a meeting room to hold a small meeting, to using all the meeting rooms downstairs to hold a film viewing and discussion, or holding auditions here, all kinds of things. We also sometimes collaborate more and co-host events with various groups.  Finally, we aim to support the various arts through our regular collections, and purchase a lot of items to help people learn an art or become better at it, whether it’s painting, photography, film-making, or building frames—if there’s a book about some kind of art out there that I (or [my coworkers]) come across, and we think it would be useful to our community, we will most likely buy it.

CW: For librarians and students who are also art enthusiasts, do you have any advice for incorporating a love of art into their library work?

CS: For real lovers and students of art and librarianship, it would be wonderful to somehow combine the two—an MLS and an Art History degree, say—and go work for a museum or gallery; that probably isn’t in the works for everyone, though! I think that, if you find yourself as a selector in a Library, see if you can be responsible for the art books (both the how-to and the ‘spectator’ books) and really curate a collection that is representative and suits your community. Bring the art to your patrons, and enjoy it first-hand and know that you are providing them with something they might not get elsewhere. Even if you don’t select, you can do things like highlight the collection by working on displays, hosting programs where local artists share their skills or knowledge, and contacting any local museums or galleries to see if there are any collaborative events you could plan based around their collections or shows. I think that libraries, when it is in their mission and within their budgets of time and money, are really open to letting their employees do things that bring enjoyment and learning to their patrons; as an employee of one, your own interests can really be the key to doing just that.

If you’d like to learn more about the collection, visit the blog, @iowacitypubliclibrary on Instagram to see pictures of the collection and more, or email Candice at 

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