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Cal Peters, “French Trappers on the Red Cedar” (courtesy UW-Stout)

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.”

The University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin (photo by Bobak Ha’Eri/Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

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.)

Emily, senior in game design and development, helps restore a historic painting in Harvey Hall. #HandsOn #Art

A photo posted by University of Wisconsin-Stout (@uwstoutpics) on

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.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

37 replies on “University Plans to Remove Two WPA Murals for Colonial Depictions”

  1. There is nothing particularly offensive or denigrating about these murals other than the fact the there are native Americans depicted.
    More to the point, they should be removed because they aresimply truly ‘bad’ paintings.

    1. Reasonable observation would allow for the importance of something being in the eye of the individual observer. But then, I’m sure you believe your opinion is infallible and thus beyond reproach.

      1. This writer may certainly not be above reproach, but in the realm of great murals, the ones pictured, to the reasonably informed eye, rate hardly a second glance. There are many contemporaries whose works stand head and shoulders above this third tier stuff. I am delighted that the institution of higher learning at which it is my pleasure to teach, both studio arts and theory, has better examples of public arts with which to enlighten its charges.
        Eye of the beholder notwithstanding.

        (Otherwise, spare me, I teach this stuff in a major university art department, so yeah, some opinions are a little less fallible than others. Deal with it.)

        1. I teach art history, including American art, at the university level. I agree that these murals aren’t “great art,” but a lot of WPA art is second and third tier stuff. I still feel it’s worth saving, perhaps primarily for its historical importance, and I’m glad that the murals will at least be kept in another location. Too many WPA paintings and reliefs have been taken down, painted over, and otherwise lost. Sometimes it’s been done with good intentions, as in this case. A mural in Princeton, NJ (also depicting native Americans) caused a similar uproar a few years back, but the mural was saved rather than destroyed altogether. Even bad art can provide a “teaching moment.”

          1. Kate,
            By all means he murals should not be destroyed. No, they are not particularly stellar works, and their saving is worthy if only for the context of their having been executed as part of historically relevant program(WPA). Aside from that they are also valuable as a relatively easy and safe venue for teaching conservation et al.
            Likewise, the potential teaching moments, one) how not to condescend to other cultures wheen depicting them, two) deferentiating between well thought out and competently executed art in more formal regards.
            It is a tragedy to destroy art, even one’s own if for no other reason than we can learn from failures as much as we do our triumphs.
            Regard,
            OR

  2. This sort of thing is a secular form of iconoclasm, reminiscent of the government-mandated destruction of rood screens and church paintings in 16th-century England. At least in this case they are not destroying the art (nor burning recusants at the stake).

    1. From Egyptian pharaohs to modern fascist and communist governments, there is a long and rich tradition of cultural obliteration and historical revisionism that comes with changes of power. Embrace the Totalitarian Left.

  3. There’s a distinction to be made between art which celebrates and art which educates. The former is appropriate for use as decoration in big public spaces and it’s legitimate to expect it to convey the values that an institution promotes or believes in. It’s also legitimate to acknowledge that those values change and the somewhat propagandistic art that promotes them can change as well.

    1. It might be nice, however, does not the Council for Indian Affairs in Minnesota qualify as Native American? They already have expressed themselves.

  4. This is the moral eqivalent of the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Yes, I understand that they are being relocated, not destroyed. But, beyond that distinction, how is the cultural left’s rejection of our history and heritage really much different? How are they not an ideological, if largely non violent, Taliban within our midst? How long too before we can expect them to morph into violence, much like the Taliban or, say, BLM activists inciting riots in Milwaukie?

    1. The murals are dead, stiff figures, bland colors and dismal handling of light. The composition is static in spite of the hypothetical movement of the subjects. The artist did justice to neither the spirit of adventure nor depiction of the Native Americans.
      The mural are not being destroyed, they are being removed and stored or relocated.
      This is not so much like the destruction of art by the Taliban as it is more like the moral equivalent of euthanizing a dear but suffering pet.

      1. In your opinion, they’re static. I’m not exactly sure what’s supposed to be so terrible about their content. Maybe you could focus on that instead of your questionable assessment of their artistic merit?

        1. Static, un-moving, stationary, in spite of the depiction of transportation and action, bereft of a sense of that action or dynamics. Treeline monotonous, likewise for vegetation and sky; water thick and opaque with no reflected light, an adept handling of which would have supported that action (see American Regionism for examples of creative composition that adds a sense of design and visual movemen; also look at some depictions of native Americans by wonderful illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth, who executed some fine murals, alive and dynamically composed).
          The murals while not ostensibly denigrating, do depict native Americans in a subservient and servile fashion as opposed to the commanding stature of colonist/explorer, though frankly for him to be standing in a moving canoe is odd.
          Frankly at the time of this episode and locale the Native Americans would have likely played a much more dynamic role in leading the white guys through the wilderness.

          In terms of subject, form and content, the pieces are inaccurate in subject, poorly executed in form and devoid of content other than the white subjugation of indigenous peoples in the cause of manifest destiny, short hand for “Hey, you guys with the animal skins and arrows and stuff…CLEAR OUT…this is our turf now!”

          The irony is that as of 300 to 400 years before these scenes take place there would have been significant evidence cultural achievement by the indigenous peoples in the murals (see 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 2005, Charles C. Mann about the pre-Columbian Americas)

          These simple native were actually remnants of a vaster civilization that was decimated by disease introduced by earlier European explorers. Thus the murals are essentially adding insult to injury, even though they do not necessarily show negative portrayals.

          Perhaps it is for this reason that the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council finds them to be so objectionable.

          They are neither good history nor good art.

  5. What a crock. It is this practice of “shouting down” anything that doesn’t conform to the current party line that feeds the historically anti-intellectual tendencies of elected officials, and, in turn, diminishes funding to arts and education.

  6. Maybe the administration with the Art Department’s coordination could commission a few works by Native American artists to provide real context for these murals that do have historical significance related to the WPA? What really concerns me is that a “game design and development” student is assisting with “restoration”–not exactly an enlightened approach to conservation, assuming the paintings are going to be preserved. Someone needs to educate the faculty in charge of this “conservation” effort!

    1. The game designer is not smearing C++ and Javascript across the painting; she is using a brush with either a cleansing fluid or sealant. Restoration science is necessary to conversation work, but the physical process of conserving can be done by anyone with fine motor skills. Also notice she is working on the frame, not the canvas.

      1. Might we also assume that said student is being supervised. We quite frequently use students/interns for a lot of the work. That is a significant part of the learning curve at the University level. Students work on real art. Better these pieces than somethings of greater artistic significance and merit.

        1. Well the caption says “helps” restore. I don’t know why anyone would assume this is not an expert-led project of some instructional value. It’s a university.

        2. For all your caveling about the quality or lack thereof of these works, I cant help but notice that your own artistic brilliance, which surely must glisten mightily in comparison to these clearly dreadful pieces, is nowhere to be found. Perhaps you could direct us to a link so that we may see for ourselves the sheer magnificence that is your artistic labour? I for one cannot wait. I’m practically a-quiver in anticipation.

          1. It would not be terribly difficult to surpass these marvels of the garage sale market.
            As for your quivering, try a little Valium.

          2. Then please, show us. I am quite sure we will all stand and applaud in amazement. Do not deny us this vision of artistic heaven.

          3. Put up. Or shut up. For right now, you’re just some artistic troll, deriding artwork because it doesnt meet whatever standards you feel are necessary for acceptance. So let’s see *your* work — now — so that we can all see the barometer by which you judge everyone else’s.

            If you cant, admit it like a gentleman and slither back under whatever rock you came from, O He Who Hides Behind an Alias Because He’s Apparently Too Gutless to Have Anyone Know His Identity. Your tiresome little tirades about whether or not this qualifies as art are as specious as your boilerplate name.

            So — again: put up. Or shut up.

          4. Chuckle…Feel free to shake down some hapless underclassman for their lunch money.
            I gave up the double dare ya’ schoolyard bully(expletive) upon departing junior high, kid.
            Come back when you can talk about the art without resorting to the sophomoric jock rhetoric and ad hominems.

  7. Denial of the past will not change it — and will not relieve the pseudo-guilt of white liberals. Would hagiographic depictions of Native people satisfy the art police? There was brutality among tribes long before the Whites entered the scene. Brutality is a human trait, not simply a White trait.

  8. Stout Alum here. So why not a plaque . Stout is after all a teaching place. Missed opportunity for a teachable moment for Native Americans and Art history (aka Art & the WPA).

    Good point Blackdogg, “Don’t deny…just don’t repeat” aka the holocaust, slave providers were the Muslims of Africa, Irish slaves in America, Black Slaves in America, Native American slaves in Native Americans’ America…my aren’t we humans a mess if left to our own devices. And for pity sake don’t re-write history to be PC.

    A tech college in Indiana had a donated painting of a turn of the century American snowy village scene. It was removed to an unobservable area. As I recall it was because there was a “Christmas” tree in one of the picture windows depicted. The complaint was that this was promoting a Christian theme. Good they didn’t have their way with the Sistine Chapel and other works, at least for now. Yet, left in the hallway was a reproduction of cover art of an L Ron Hubbard book. Scientology trumped Christianity or maybe the students were just so dense they had no sense of history what’s so ever.

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