Past Is Prologue: Oregon Murals Provide a “Teachable Moment”

Library Mural

Library Mural
“Development of Science”
Photo Credit: Howard Davis

Just as the controversy over the Victor Arnautoff murals in San Francisco’s George Washington High School draws national and even international attention, New Deal era murals in the University of Oregon’s main library stir debate over public art, representations of gender and race, and conditions for an inclusive campus environment. The future of the Knight Library murals, however, was decided in a much different way, with a much different conclusion–and offers a model for engagement with challenging public art.

The controversy surrounding the Knight Library murals began several years ago as students launched successive protests over three murals installed as part of the 1937 New Deal-era library’s east and west stairwells. The focus was on the WPA artists Arthur and Albert Runquist’s pictorial murals “The Development of Science” and “The Development of Art.” The Runquist brothers, graduates of the University of Oregon, shipyard workers and regionally known artists, were associated with progressive politics. Today’s critical analysis, however, draws attention to their selective narrative. As shown in “The Development of Science,” progress is suggested by a tree portraying eight vignettes from the early human discovery of fire and agriculture to science in the early 20th century. Its emphasis on Western civilization and a limited representation based on gender and race normalizes forms of privilege that university values presumably should challenge. Certainly, twenty-first century UO students have.

Mural, "The Mission of a University"

Mural, "The Mission of a University"
The words “our racial heritage” were defaced with red ink.
Photo Credit: Howard Davis

The mural that draws the greatest fire, however, is titled “The Mission of a University,” inscribed on the wall as if it were a medieval manuscript. The text borrows from a 1909 speech by UO Sociology professor Frederick Young in which he argues the service required of a university, contending: “From now on it must be a climb if our nation is to hold its position among the nations of the Earth. It means conservation and betterment not merely of our national resources but also of our racial heritage and of opportunity to the lowliest.”

A student petition, filed in November 2017, called for the University to remove it—mobilizing over 1,750 students in the process.  During the summer of 2018, the mural was defaced. A protestor highlighted the phrase racial heritage” with red paint and left a taunting note: “Which art do you choose to conserve now?”  

The library administration’s response was to clean the mural, send the note to be archived as part of the campus’ history of protest, and to place a placard next to the mural acknowledging the defacement, yet calling for “continuing our cross-campus project to contextualize these artifacts for educational and cultural reasons, and for allowing them to remain uncensored as evidence of the embedded racist and sexist legacy against which many of us still struggle.”

Librarian’s Response

Librarian’s Response
Placard addressing vandalism of the Knight Library Mural
Photo Credit: Judith Kenny

Education rather than erasure has been the consistent response from the administration. This might, in part, be understood as an aspect of its conservation responsibilities for a building with historic preservation requirements. Completed in 1937, the Knight Library was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. It exemplifies the quality of public building that could be produced through the financing of the New Deal’s PWA and WPA programs and the creativity inspired by the WPA Federal Arts Program. Because the murals are embedded in the library’s walls, removal would likely destroy them. But the conservation of a building, as the placard cited, is less an issue than is the uncensored evidence of an “embedded racist and sexist legacy.”

Even as protests took place, in February 2017, Adrienne Lim, Dean of Libraries, launched the Knight Library Public Art Task Force, charged with several tasks. Just last month, it submitted its report to the University Senate.

Knight Library

Knight Library
University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon
Photo Credit: Howard Davis

The first task was to set up a committee of library faculty members to work on a guide to the library’s historic resources. The second, overseen by a committee of students and faculty members, involved conducting a public forum, “Public Art, Cultural Memory, and Anti-Racism” to explore public art as an artifact representing past and contemporary values. The third task undertook a juried exhibit of student art that reflected contemporary values, titled “Show Up, Stand Out, Empower!”

A public forum, “Public Art, Cultural Memory and Anti-racism,” discussed the implications of removing the “The Mission of the University” mural.  Professor Laura Pulido, Head of the Department of Ethnic Studies, argued against removal, “I understand that many want to tear down racist symbols of the past for reasons I respect. But I am opposed to such erasures,” she said, adding, “The only way to move forward to not be held hostage to our past is to engage the past.”

Democratizing Beauty

Berkeley, California Rose Garden

Berkeley, California Rose Garden
The garden, featuring 1,500 varieties of roses, was one of the first of the New Deal’s Civil Works Progress projects. Conceived in 1933, it was dedicated for public use in 1937.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

I had to think hard when a reporter recently asked me what most surprised me about what I’ve learned about the New Deal. After a pause, I replied “The importance of aesthetics.” My response was primed by the first sentence of a list of goals set forth by the National Resources Planning Board [NPRB] for what the Roosevelt Administration sought to achieve after the war:

“The fullest possible development of the human personality, in relation to the common good, in a framework of freedoms and rights, of justice, liberty, equality, and the consent of the governed.”

I marveled at how alien such a high and holistic aspiration seemed not only in the present but in all the administrations of my lifetime. It was especially so in light of the time it was written— January, 1943 at the nadir of the Second World War when Americans were still under food rationing. But, in fact, it succinctly summarizes much of what the New Deal set out to accomplish.

Central Court, Main Library, Toledo, Ohio

Central Court, Main Library, Toledo, Ohio
This public library was constructed in 1939 with the aid of Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). A multi-color glass mosaic crowns the lobby.
Photo Credit: Evan Kalish

Although Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had all of the advantages that inherited wealth and status gave them—spending three months on the Grand Tour of Europe for their honeymoon, for example—they both came to believe that access to beauty should not be the exclusive prerogative of their own class. In 1941, in his dedication of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., President Roosevelt declared that great works of art such as those in the Gallery belong to all men everywhere, but that the government furthermore had a duty to create new art and take it to where there had been none before.

The WPA’s Federal Music, Theatre, Writing, and Art Projects and the Treasury Section of Fine Arts did just that, so that Roosevelt could deftly leap in his speech from Andrew Mellon’s gift of Old Masters in the Gallery to what FDR felt all Americans were entitled to: “Recently… they have seen in their own towns, in their own villages and schoolhouses and post offices, in the backrooms of shops and stores, pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors, people they’ve known and lived beside and talked to.” Both FDR and Eleanor believed that access to beauty was essential for “the full development of the human personality” not only for healthy individuals, but also for a healthy democracy. Even in the absence—or obverse—of such goals at the federal level today, New Deal projects such as Central Park’s Conservatory Gardens, Mt Hood’s Timberline Lodge, and Denver’s Red Rock Amphitheatre have enabled millions to nourish their spirits just as the NPRB hoped they would in the midst of war.

 

Sunshine School for Crippled Children, San Francisco
The richly detailed interior and exterior of the school, built in 1937, was meant to provide a cheerful atmosphere for the disabled children.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Sculptor Wheeler Williams created this relief for the Canal Street Station Post Office in Manhattan in 1938.

Indian Bowman
Sculptor Wheeler Williams created this relief for the Canal Street Station Post Office in Manhattan in 1938.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

From FDR’s speech at the National Gallery dedication:

“Great works of art belong to all men everywhere. Art was foreign to Americans, they were taught. Recently, they have discovered that they have a part. They have seen their own towns, in their own villages and schoolhouses and Post Offices, in the backrooms of shops and stores, pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors, people they’ve known and lived beside and talked to. They have seen across these last few years rooms full of painting and sculptures by Americans. Walls covered with the paintings by Americans. Some of it good, some of it not so good. But all of it native and human and eager and alive; all of it painted by their own kind in this country. And painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.” 

Dedicated in conviction that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on too.