Two WPA murals at the University of Wisconsin–Stout are planned to be removed from public view due to their colonial views of Native Americans. The decision has riled free speech advocates, who see placing the 1930s paintings in a less accessible library and a dean’s conference room as censorship of the past.
“If you can’t see them, you can’t even talk about them,” Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), told Hyperallergic. “We think that the university could take more active measures, like getting new artwork there by people who are objecting and could counter the message, and it could become a teachable moment.”
NCAC with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer on August 5 in response to news that the two paintings by Cal Peters would be temporarily stored before potential relocation, reportedly due to student complaints and a decision by the school’s Diversity Leadership Team. The coalition urged that the paintings remain on display “as both historically important artifacts and teaching tools,” adding that removing the paintings “of historically oppressed groups from view will not change the facts of history.”
On August 8, following the letter, UW-Stout shifted its stance slightly, with Meyer announcing the work would instead be on view in “controlled circumstances.” Wisconsin Public Radio quoted Meyer, who said that “we want to make sure that, really, what we decorate our hallways with and what we put in our hallways is consistent with our values to try to attract more Native Americans to the university.” The business-oriented tone of his response irked advocates such as NCAC.
“That troubles us because it implies the understanding of a university as a place of business,” Mintcheva said. “It implies that […] we need to make them [the students] feel good, and for better or worse American history is not always about feeling good. It’s also disrespectful to students, because Native American students probably don’t have to see a WPA mural to see the pain that their ancestors went through, and it’s also endangering the university’s being open to every type of material and encouraging critical thinking.”
The Wisconsin-born Cal Peters arrived at UW-Stout in 1935, working from a basement studio in Harvey Hall, and painting several murals on campus. The 15.5-foot-long “French Trappers on The Red Cedar” shows white men riding in boats ahead of Native Americans, and the 18.5-foot-long “Perrault’s Trading Fort” likewise shows the colonists as a “civilizing” presence. Both reference the early history of Menomonie, Wisconsin, where UW-Stout is now located. Peters also created the larger “Industry, Skill and Honor” mural that stretches 33 feet above the entrance to Harvey Hall, which celebrates the university’s polytechnic history. Another mural by Peters in Harvey Hall Theatre is believed hidden behind plaster. (Images of all three of the visible UW-Stout murals are on the university’s site.)
The two smaller murals were relocated to a second floor hallway in Harvey Hall this February, ahead of a September reopening of the hall post-renovation. The decision to move the paintings from the common areas is a shift for UW-Stout, which recently carried out extensive restoration on all three murals, as well as an extensive student research project into their history.
Relocation of the UW-Stout paintings follows recent attention to stereotypical, racist, or colonial visuals in historic public art, such as the 1905 “Discoverers and Civilizers” painting in the Minnesota State Capital, which 11 tribes with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council have requested be removed. The University of Kentucky likewise shrouded a WPA mural by Ann Rice O’Hanlon that included visuals of enslaved people working in the fields. “I think there should be a critical revision to how we see this work, but rather than censoring, create more speech, give people an opportunity to see these anew and through the eyes of 2016,” Mintcheva said.
A request for comment from UW-Stout was not returned at the time of publication.