Leonardo da Vinci / Head of a Girl, Red chalk on paper prepared with red ground (Biblioteca Reale, Torino)
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Head of a Girl,” red chalk on paper prepared with red ground.
(Biblioteca Reale, Torino)

The drawings were shipped with armed guards, the travel schedule kept secret, in frames equipped with their own precise micro-climates and sensors linked to computers in Italy. Once at their destination – a small museum on a Virginia college campus – more than a thousand students lined up on a cold night for their chance to spend time, up close, with Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings.

“It’s incomparable, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Aaron de Groft, director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary. “They’re 500 years old and produced by one of the greatest artists in history.” He remembered his own experience, as a student, watching a curator take out a Michelangelo drawing and marveling. “How did I get here?” he remembers thinking. “Someone of great genius touched this. … It’s a very humbling experience.”

There are staggering pieces of art on college campuses, often available to students and the public in much more intimate ways than famous art typically is experienced. Rather than peering over the shoulders of strangers at a crowded museum, at many schools, students can linger over a piece.

At Columbia, students regularly pass Auguste Rodin’s iconic “The Thinker” in front of Philosophy Hall.

At Harvard (which, like Yale, has an enormous art collection), Mark Rothko painted a series of murals for a dining room on campus. They faded there, over the years, but a team of conservators and scientists at Harvard and MIT recently created digital projections to restore the experience of the original colors.

Dartmouth has an epic 24-panel mural — designated a national landmark — in a library.

At Brown, students often nap, sunbathe, read, and kiss curled up on a Henry Moore sculpture on the main green.

The University of Virginia’s Fralin Museum of Art was recently given works from the Warhol Foundation, adding to photographs the artist took.


Andy Warhol, “Sitting Bull,” 1986. (The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, 2014.1.3 © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

And the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin announced this month that Ellsworth Kelly will build a stone structure with colored glass windows, a wooden sculpture and marble panels. It will be Kelly’s first work in stone and using light and glass to create color.

Austin will allow visitors the opportunity literally to walk into an Ellsworth Kelly: a space of abstraction and light,” Jack Shear, director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, said in a release.

At the Rhode Island School of Design Museum — which has nearly 100,000 pieces in its collection, including frescoes from Pompei and iconic Impressionist paintings — professors can pull pieces out for classes, and students from RISD and its nearby neighbor Brown can ask curators for a closer look at artwork. Students write about the art there — here, for example, “Kicking the bucket in ancient Etruria,” thoughts on an iconic, yet humble piece.

“There’s a vitality to it,” said Sarah Ganz Blythe, deputy director of exhibitions, education and programs at the RISD Museum, of their museum and those at other universities. “Very often you’ll see a student sprawled on the floor, working through an idea. It’s a very active space.”