The Art of Community-Building: Insights on Building Communal Spaces in the Student Union Around Artwork

Art and community-building are intrinsically linked, and the campus setting is no exception, according to recent doctoral research from Adriane Reilly, associate director of the Sykes Student Union at West Chester University.

“Based on the findings of this study and my professional experience, physical elements such as lighting, art, color, layout, furniture, and upkeep can enhance or diminish students’ sense of belonging in addition to the people who use the space,” Reilly, who also serves as a member-at-large on ACUI’s Board of Trustees, writes in “Familiar Faces and Comfortable Spaces: The Role of the College Union in Fostering Sense of Belonging on a College Campus“.

Reilly’s study aimed to explore how undergraduate students experience a sense of belonging in the college union building (thereby supporting their persistence toward degree completion) and the variety of ways that the union’s physical space does or does not influence a sense of belonging for a diverse sampling of undergraduate students. As part of the study, Reilly invited eight undergraduate college students to participate in two interviews, including a photo-elicitation activity during which students captured images of areas in the college union where they did and did not feel belonging. Data analysis revealed that spatial elements such as lighting, murals, photography, and signage enhanced belonging.

Reilly shared the practical implications of her study with peers earlier this month during ACUI’s online learning event “Art in Facilities,” which included incorporating students in space-related decision-making, encouraging student stewardship, and initiating routine belonging assessments.

“In a belonging audit, a group of students might complete a photo-elicitation activity to determine whether or not artwork on display instills a sense of belonging or whether or not that art is meeting the needs and interests of the study body,” Reilly said.

Also familiar with how artistic exhibitions and spaces create opportunities for shared, communal experiences is Kathryn Chattin, director of campus art for university collections at Indiana University–Bloomington.

From a stained-glass window dating back to 1290 AD to a plaster cast of Venus de Milo from 1897, Chattin and her team are responsible for hosting and securing all university artwork and objects not located in a museum through the nine campuses of the Indiana University system. The collection comprises around 20,000 pieces, including more than 10,000 pieces in and around the 500,000-square-foot Indiana Memorial Union.

“The Indiana Memorial Union is one of the largest student unions in the world; the collection includes paintings, drawings, sculptures (both indoor and outdoor), prints, decorative art objects, and antique furniture,” Chattin told webinar attendees. “Within that, we’ve got portraits, landscapes, still lifes, contemporary print work, bronze sculpture, China tea sets, settees, antique benches and tables — you name it, it pretty much exists in this space.”

The team aims to display artwork in highly visible public spaces, including hallways, conference and event spaces, gathering spaces, lounges, restaurants, and dining spaces.

“Protecting artwork in public spaces is very challenging,” Chattin said. “The building hosts over 17,000 events annually and sees tens of thousands of visitors each year. The irony, of course, is it is not a museum. We don’t have 24-hour surveillance. We don’t have security guards, but we do our best to maintain museum standards in what is a very public space. We are museum-trained staff, so we employ museum techniques in order to keep things safe and secure.”

Those techniques include affixing artifact tags with inventory numbers to pieces, didactic labeling, and public display considerations like bullet-proof Lexan glazing, Tyvek backing, archival housing, and environmental information. Artwork is additionally protected via an Indiana University fine art insurance policy with a $5,000 deductible, a three-point security hardware system, and a diligent and watchful staff. Some high-value items are installed behind locked doors.

Anthony Faris, gallery coordinator and curator of collections for North Dakota State University, oversees a collection of more than 2,000 objects, including indigenous artwork, regional artwork, and pieces from Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Judy Chicago. Faris spoke to webinar attendees about how artistic events and exhibitions create opportunities for communal experiences and dialogue among community members.

“A major aspect of our gallery is that at every show, we have some sort of workshop or artist’s talk — so we are encouraging good conversations and making sure that the space can be used as a gathering spot,” Faris said.

Faris noted the importance of balancing artists’ visions with student accessibility and community-building opportunities. “Early galleries and museums often had a lot of chairs and tables for people to sit down in a very communal space. Now they’ve become more isolated. So, one of my considerations [for the future] is to create a more active space while still maintaining the integrity of our space.”


  • Christine Preusler

    Christine Preusler, Managing Editor at The Wyman Company in Gainesville, Florida, writes The Lead for ACUI's biweekly newsletter, The Bulletin. Christine uses more than 15 years of experience in publication management and a master’s in mass communications from the University of Florida to highlight the latest industry news and create thought-provoking content. Contact her via email ( with story ideas and announcements you'd like to see in the newsletter.