Libraries that loan Picassos, not Grishams

"Art To Take" reads the sign on the unpretentious building in the artsy, funky Mitte neighborhood, a Berlin Greenwich Village of sorts.

Hans Rupp, a young management consultant, stops by after work. The place looks like a gallery. Paintings adorn the walls. A photo by Florian Merkel of a woman in front of the Berlin skyline covers half a wall. "The Potato" by Claes Oldenburg, along with other sculptures, rests in a glass case.

But the place is too cluttered for an exhibition. Works from a vast collection of etchings, original drawings, prints, and oil paintings are stacked against the wall. They're from artists spanning centuries, including Picasso, Feininger, Miró, and Dali. And Mr. Rupp is there to take out one or two to decorate his apartment.

In Germany, you don't have to shell out thousands of dollars to live with an original Andy Warhol. As you would a book from the library, you can check out original art from one of 140 publicly funded "art libraries," or artotheken. Born in the 1960s to increase Germans' contact with art, "art libraries" are now an established tool of municipal cultural policy, and one which, for many, act as a door opener.

"People come and look for a piece of art, an object, a painting, and they come back having experienced something," says Johannes Stahl, an art historian who is head of the Bonn-based German Association of Artotheks. "They realize that art isn't just a material object you hang on a wall, but it's got a life of its own that involves the borrower." People who might not have had a connection to art end up buying paintings or going to a museum with their kids.

At the Mitte Artothek, card-holders can take up to three pieces for six months. All they have to do is show a Berlin ID and pay 50 cents for insurance. The fee is particularly low because the library's $40,000 budget comes from state lottery money. Across Germany, art libraries vary in size and structure. But whether they're run by nonprofit groups or belong to a municipal library system, they're financed almost exclusively with public money, charging on the average $5 for one painting for two months. Despite the low fees, thefts are nonexistent and damage is rare, officials say.

Since stumbling upon the gallery as a student 10 years ago, Rupp has been coming every six months to "furnish" his apartment. He could sit down at a table and browse through one of the thick index binders, but he prefers to scavenge around. Plus, more than 2,000 of the 3,670 pieces in the artothek have been checked out.

Borrowing paintings was, at first, intimidating. Although Rupp feels more at ease with the process, finding the right art isn't easy. This time, he settles on a photograph by Berlin artist Anton Henning. He'll have to come another day to find a matching painting.

"It's not just a question of optics, it's also a question of meaning," he says.

Learning how to understand art goes to the heart of the art libraries' reason for being. "Looking at a painting in a museum is different from living with it," says Heide Bayat, director of the Berlin Mitte Artothek. "Art is like with everything in life - it's something you can practice and learn how to live with."

Intertwined with this educational role is the hope that taking out art will induce people to buy paintings later. People, says Ms. Bayat, learn that art doesn't have to be expensive. "One has to learn that art isn't at a higher level than other things," says Bayat. "It's important, but it's not sacred, and everybody can have access to it."

But times are rough for art libraries. With German cities in a financial squeeze, libraries have had to reinvent their role. Some art libraries have closed, while others have stopped adding to their collections. Others have raised their borrowing fees, while some now allow people to buy art. But for every artothek that's closed, a new one has opened, says Stahl of the German Association of Artotheks. To him, the fact that the number of libraries has remained roughly constant over the years is a sign of their contribution to society.

In itself, the idea of lending art to people isn't new. It dates back to late 19th-century America, when Vermonter John Cotton Dana, a pioneer in the field of librarianship, created the first picture-lending collection at the Museum of Denver. Holland has a policy of buying works of art to make available to ordinary citizens. And France also has adopted the artothek model. But it was in the Germany of the late 1960s that the concept became institutionalized. "One had the feeling everything was possible in Berlin, recalls Bayat. With slogans such as "education for zero cents," the student movement demanded that the government invest in culture.

Siegfried Kuehl, a young artist in Berlin, had just visited London's Greenwich's Picture Lending Service.

He envisioned bringing "art for free for all the people of Berlin," he says today from his Berlin arts studio. Mr. Kuehl got a few artists, who saw a chance to expose their work to a wider audience, to donate pieces. Word spread. Artwork came from Munich, Vienna, and Paris. The group persuaded politicians to make money available. In 1968, the Graphotek, Germany's first and largest art library opened. Today, it houses 7,000 works of art.

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