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  1. Photograph: Courtesy of threewalls
    Photograph: Courtesy of threewalls

    Laura Mackin, Nightstand, 2009-11.

  2. Photograph: Courtesy of threewalls
    Photograph: Courtesy of threewalls

    Conrad Bakker, Untitled Project: PRODUCE (potato), 2011.

  3. Photograph: Courtesy of Hull-House Museum
    Photograph: Courtesy of Hull-House Museum

    A Hull-House program brings art reproductions to Chicago Public Schools, date unknown.


Chicagoans can borrow one of 12 artworks for three months, free.


We’re strongly tempted to borrow the potato. Conrad Bakker’s Untitled Projects: Produce (Potato) (2011) is a hand-painted wooden sculpture available through Jane Addams Hull-House Museum’s new Art Lending Library. But my husband and I decide to check Laura Mackin’s photograph Nightstand (2009–11) out of the library instead. Mackin’s collected still-lifes of her nightstand seem more likely to make us think about what living with art means.

I recently visited Hull-House Museum (800 S Halsted St) to pick up my library card and request Mackin’s photograph, which I’ll be able to keep for three months. I sat down with Heather Radke, the museum’s project and exhibit coordinator, to find out how the library operates.

The initial collection comes from the Community-Supported Art program that threewalls, a nonprofit gallery in the West Loop, launched last year. Threewalls’ CSAs offer four to eight local artists’ works for less than what one of their pieces would normally cost. The Art Lending Library purchased more than one share of threewalls’ spring 2011 CSA, so that it owns multiple editions of 12 artworks by Bakker, Mackin, Edie Fake, Jason Lazarus, Jessica Labatte and seven other emerging and midcareer artists. (Once patrons “are clamoring for new stuff,” Radke says, threewalls’ Shannon Stratton and Abigail Satinsky will curate more materials for the library.) Anyone in the Chicago area may borrow one artwork at a time, for free. Delivery, installation and pickup are also free.

Radke traces the library to Hull House’s rich history of art programs, such as outreach in public schools. A few years after Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr cofounded the settlement house in 1889, Starr opened a library that circulated reproductions of canonical works. “We think of those things as being very accessible to everyone now, but they weren’t at the time,” Radke says.

Addams and Starr believed “people who are living in poverty didn’t just need social services,” Radke adds. “They also needed to have experiences with art and beauty. They talked about cultural rights, not just workers’ rights.”

Hull-House Museum revived the library in late March because so few people have access to original art. Ensuring that patrons come from all over the city and all walks of life is crucial to the initiative, Radke says, noting that the library may lend art to the Night Ministry. It’s important “that we bring the piece to you,” she says. “That’s about building relationships and providing this bit of hospitality that doesn’t often enter our lives, across lines of difference and in diverse parts of Chicago.”

The library’s volunteer installers reduce the risk that artworks will be damaged: Most are M.F.A. students with professional art-handling experience. (Unfortunately, their busy schedules preclude prompt delivery. It took a couple of weeks to arrange the installation of Mackin’s photo.) When Radke took over the project in July 2011, she had to determine how to protect the museum’s investment without traditional loan agreements or deposits. She consulted Seattle’s Art Lending Library and San Francisco’s Tenderloin Art Lending Library, which assured her they have had no problems more serious than a broken frame. “There’s just a level of trust,” she concludes. “You’re providing this artwork to people for free, and you’re trusting them to treat it with as much care as they can.”

Learn more about the Art Lending Library at

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