by Liz Georges

Considering that he first rattled into DC as a staffer on the Book Bus in 1978, it is somehow fitting that more than 30 years later, Don Russell, Executive Director of Provisions Learning Project, is still surrounded by books. Nowadays, it’s a concentrated set of bookshelves housed in the core of the new Art and Design Building at George Mason University in Fairfax. Provisions Library, part of this larger project addressing the intersection of arts and social change, has over 6,000 volumes, organized along 36 topics called “Meridians.”

Back then, it was the prospect of creating Bookworks, WPA’s much beloved bookstore, that lured Russell onto the staff at WPA in 1981. “[Then-WPA Director] Al Nodal was very interested in artist books because it was a phenom in the art world in the late seventies…one thing led to another and he asked me to manage a bookstore when they moved to the new space at 7th and D Street,” Russell remembers.

Russell’s experience running the bookstore at WPA, and his later roles as Program Director and Executive Director, contained the seeds of what he is doing today. “I remember there was a wonderful Board member, Herb White, and the bookstore was always struggling to make money, and Herb said, … ‘Don, why don’t you just start a library?’ And I thought at the time, ‘It’s a bookstore, why would we start a library?’ But the idea sort of embedded in my mind.”

Exploring social change via art was also a hallmark of his time at WPA. “Even back in my first stint at WPA, we did work on US intervention in Central America, we did an exhibition called Artists Call. We worked with an the artist Esther Parada from Chicago who did this lengthy elaborarte thing installation about Smedley Butler who was the sort of renegade general who was againstopposed all the foreign intervention. I also organized exhibitions about the AIDS crisis”.

So when Gaylord Neeley of the Gaea Foundation was looking for a way to reconfigure her foundation’s efforts to promote the intersection of art and social change, Don Russell was a natural fit to lead the project. “We developed a sort of collection of knowledge and way of bringing resources forward, alternative resources about a whole range of social change issues – 36 to be exact—and then filtered in all the most pertinent artists books that relate to social change,” Russell explains. “Look, nobody can make money selling books except Amazon, and even they’re going to be hurting at some point. But the idea of a library, especially a very focused, intentional sort of library, not encyclopedic, but you’re trying to make making a point, trying to create a conceptual work of art piece if you will, and that’s what the Provisions Llibrary is. It’s a usable conceptual artwork: an oracle.”

Now relocated to its new home at George Mason University, the choice to house the Provisions Library across from the snack barcafe in the Art & Design Bbuilding with GMU’s art department was deliberate. “I feel like libraries are too monumental. When I go around, I talk to classes a lot and I ask them, do you ever use Fenwick, which is the main library, a perfectly lovely library. Nobody Hardly anybody uses it. It’s very intimidating, I find. The way things are organized, it’s not always clear or intuitive. You almost have to learn how to be a librarian in order to figure things out. And that’s not for everybody,” says Russell. “Every day, people just come in here. They wander in here, they don’t even know they’re going to a library in a way. They’re going because they want to look at and learn from some interesting books.”

Russell’s goal for how students, artists and other visitors will use the library is three-fold: “There’s personal research, people come in here and ask a question and I’ll help them. Then there’s the second level, which I’d say is dialogue. I can have a dialogue with peoplethem. People have a project and they want my help conceptualizing it. … And then the third level would be collaboration. We want to do projects. We want to use the research center to generate projects.”

In many respects, the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason offers a perfect ecosystem for Provisions to create projects that use art to explore social change – Russell has already worked with the Floating Lab Collective, which is based at Mason, and many longtime friends – Edgar AndresEndress, Tom Ashcraft, Peter Winant and Helen Frederick -- are part of the program. As an “up-and-comer” amongst the halls of higher learning, Mason is less entrenched in its thinking. Provisions is now supported in part by the university, but will remain an independent non-profit, with additional foundation supportThe university has agreed that Provisions will do its own fundraising, but as a part of the GMU community, but, Russell will now has ave the chance to pursue larger institutional grants. “I couldn’t get a National Science Foundation grant on my own, I couldn’t work with the State Department on my own. But I know that there are many ambitious projects we could do under with the imprimatur of the university,” Russell says.

Ultimately, Russell sees his work with Provisions as an opportunity to encourage more dialogue between art and other disciplines and social sectors, which he sees as revitalizing for everyone. “The art world is a subculture -- it protects artists, it protects its interests, it maintains a certain standard of quality most of the time, but I think we’re entering a phase where creativity is needed in a lot of other disciplines -- like engineering, for instance. Teaching people by the book is no longer working. People want the creative. So in a sense I’d like to take the artist out of the art world in some way and move them into other types of careers that are equally creative and satisfying and draw some of the engineers and mathematicians into the arts and make the art world more interesting and more just.”

Provisions Library is located in the Art and Design Building on the George Mason University Campus in Fairfax, Virginia. The Library’s unique collection of books, periodicals, and videos for artists, students or researchers interested in the intersection of arts and social change is open to the public Tuesday through Friday, 11am to 5pm, or by appointment. Visit for more details or email


December 1, 2011