Student-led walking tours highlight Brown’s diverse collection of public art

Through free weekly outdoor tours, Brown students offer guided narration for a selection of works in the University’s expansive public art collection.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On a recent Sunday afternoon, Brown sophomore Sofia Gonzalez stood in front of the iconic “Bronze Bruno” bear statue overlooking the University’s College Green and asked those gathered around her to shift their positions and consider the piece from a different perspective: the back. 

After tour-goers admired the lifelike fur on the looming figure’s tail, Gonzalez pointed out an easily overlooked detail of the statue, by renowned sculptor Eli Harvey. According to an inscription at its base, it sits on a pedestal made from a piece of the slate Roger Williams landed on when he fled Plymouth Colony by canoe and arrived in Rhode Island in 1636.

The visit to the statue was part of a new student-led public art walking tours program, organized by the Brown Arts Institute to broaden access to and appreciation of the University’s ever-expanding collection of public art.

“By activating this collection with student-curated tours, we are promoting an understanding and appreciation of the rich cultural treasures that are part of Brown’s magnificent public art collection,” said Nicole Wholean, registrar and curator of campus collections, who leads the initiative.

The 40-minute tours are offered at 1 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday from April through November. Saturday tours meet at the sculpture “Bronze Bruno” on the College Green and Sunday tours meet at the sculpture “Circle Dance” on the Campus WalkAdmission is free and advance registration is not required.

True to Brown’s focus on student-centered learning and intellectual independence, each tour has been designed by one of the 15 student art interpreters, who personally curated a selection of highlighted works.

Gonzalez, for example, was drawn to “Bronze Bruno” and five other pieces of campus art, including Maya Lin’s granite water table of Narragansett Bay, called “Under the Laurentide,” and Tom Friedman’s joyful “Circle Dance” sculpture.

“I was excited to get involved as a tour guide because public art adds a lot of beauty to our shared spaces and also sparks a lot of creativity and imagination,” said Gonzalez, who is double concentrating in the history of art and architecture and international and public affairs. “It also allows me to get some hands-on experience in a field I may want to pursue in the future.”

Each tour draws on art from the wide range of time periods represented in Brown’s diverse collection, from classical pieces like an equestrian statue of Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius that was unveiled on campus in 1908 to modern works like Martin Puryear’s 2014 iron and stone “Slavery Memorial,” which acknowledges Brown’s connections to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the contributions that Africans and African Americans made to building the University.  

The student guides reference the works not only to highlight individual artists’ talents and creative methods, but to spark inquiry and conversation related to broader themes and topics, including race, class and the environment.

“Overall, the pieces on my tour are the pretty well-known ones, but it has been really interesting to hear all of the different ways people interpret and respond to them,” Gonzalez said.

Fellow student art interpreter Samantha Ho, a first-year student, said she selected works that reflect her interest in Brown’s history, and history more broadly. A stop at the Marcus Aurelius statue on Ruth Simmons Quadrangle, for example, offers her an opportunity to discuss how the University has evolved since the early 1900s, when the piece was installed, and have a conversation about how perceptions of public monuments may change over time.

For Wholean, it’s been rewarding to see the ambitious project come to fruition after nearly two years.

“Developing the public art walking tours has been a collective effort among many people who love Brown and care about its aesthetic and environment,” she said.

Wholean said the idea to create an art tour was first discussed at a meeting of the University’s Public Art Working Group, a committee focused on adding to and sustaining Brown’s collection of contemporary artworks.

To help bring the vision to life, Wholean hired rising senior Béatrice Duchastel de Montrouge in Summer 2022 to assist with research and development. The pair went on public art tours throughout the East Coast, interviewed experts, including curators at the RISD Museum, and read up on the topic, eventually developing a pilot tour similar to those now offered on campus. Duchastel de Montrouge, who graduated in 2023 and now works as a museum professional at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, returned to campus this semester to help train the students.

This academic year, the project’s development accelerated with the launch of Brown Art Institute’s ArtsCorps, a workforce development program that provides freelance arts employment opportunities for students and members of the public. ArtsCorps’ robust infrastructure streamlined student hiring and payroll, Wholean said.

Wholean trained the program’s 15 public art interpreters earlier this semester through a six-session workshop series. Participants received an in-depth education on the public art collection, studied best practices and learned how to develop their own tours from Wholean and museum educators who came to campus as guest speakers. As part of the experience, the students were also encouraged to visit Rhode Island landmarks, including the State House, the Newport Art Museum and the Lippitt House Museum.

“Curating an art tour is a creative practice, and the students had a lot of fun choosing works to interpret while also collaborating with each other and with our team,” Wholean said.  

As the public art interpreters help launch the new initiative, they are learning as they go and perfecting their practice. To start, many are leading tours in pairs; eventually, they will guide them solo.

“It’s been really exciting to be part of a program that’s so new and one that’s engaging not only with people who are already connected with campus, but with the broader Providence community,” Ho said. “I love the idea of extending what we learn and do here."