Art theft: the crime that skyrocketed the Mona Lisa to fame in 1911. This covert crime also exists at Trinity Western University, however, no TWU artists have yet achieved fame as a result. Every week, students hang their carefully crafted masterpieces in the hallways of RNT, often unaware of the risks they are taking.
Natasha DeVries, a recent alumna of the TWU Art & Design program, said that while her art had never been stolen, it was still a concern while she was studying at TWU.
“It’s really important to the program to display student art,” DeVries said. “But every year, one or two pieces go ‘missing.’”
Kristine Ens, a first-year Art + Design major, has had her art stolen at TWU twice. It isn’t clear whether the pieces’ disappearance is the result of intention or accident. Luckily for Ens, the pieces both reappeared later in different places around RNT.
But Ens also admitted that she was flattered that someone took her art. After all, someone liked her art enough that they wanted to have it. “I felt honoured that it was taken,” she said.
DeVries disagreed with the sentiment that it is flattering to have your artwork stolen.
“You would never tell a music student they should be flattered that their score was ripped off, or a science student that they should be flattered their research was stolen, or a writer that they were plagiarized,” DeVries said. “Why do we tell artists that people not crediting us or stealing from us is a compliment just because someone is showing our work even if it is without our permission?”
There seemed to be a pattern emerging as I interviewed TWU artists about their experiences with art theft. Almost every artist I spoke with experienced finding their art discarded, often in another building, left for someone else to “clean up” or return to the art room. This “rental” view of the art hanging in RNT is fascinating– does it reflect a campus that feels guilt about this crime, or a campus that loses interest in the art that they’ve taken and hung on their own walls? Regardless, it is clear that there are individuals who do not respect or appreciate the time, effort and creativity that goes into these pieces. They don’t realize that they often contain a piece of that artist’s soul.
One reason for the devaluation of the lost paintings of RNT is that arts are generally underappreciated in our society today. Because art has little utilitarian value, artists and their work aren’t easily assimilated into our consumerist system. Ironically, as a result, art theft becomes a crime viewed as a compliment: your art was valuable enough to be taken (but not valuable enough to be bought).
One might wonder if the problem of art theft at RNT could not be solved by simply placing a security camera in the hallway where the art is displayed. Jo Jansen, TWU’s head Security & Emergency Planning Manager, said that while there are some CCTV cameras located at RNT, there are currently no cameras specifically covering the artwork. Jansen said that if art thefts are reported to security, as and when they occur, Security can make an informed decision as to whether there is a need to expand the CCTV to cover the artwork.
Occurrences of art theft have not been reported to Security to this point—perhaps because students who have their art stolen believe that it is a compliment. But Jansen acknowledged that it can be quite distressing for those who have their artwork stolen, given the time and effort that goes into creating such pieces.
“I would encourage anyone who experiences this to report it as soon as the theft is realized. We will then investigate the incident and where necessary involve the RCMP,” Jansen said. “If anyone has any knowledge of a particular theft I would ask them to come forward and speak to us in confidence.”
So what happens with art when it disappears? As far as I know, there is no secret black market at TWU.
“If they know how to sell it I think we’d all like to know their secret,” Natasha DeVries said jokingly. “Because art is pretty hard to sell.”