District court rules Vermont Law School can cover up dividing campus mural without violating artist’s rights


A US District Court in Vermont has ruled that Vermont Law School may cover up a large piece of public art on slavery that has divided viewers for years over images that some deem offensive and cartoonish. The judge rejected the artist’s argument that it would violate his rights under VARA, or the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.

In a ruling dated Oct. 20, Chief Justice Geoffrey W. Crawford allowed the school’s summary judgment request and reiterated an earlier ruling in the case – when the artist sought an injunction – according to which “the text of the VARA does not protect against concealment or removal from the exhibition of works of art.

Artist Samuel Kerson painted the works in 1993 on the walls of the Jonathan B. Chase Community Center at Law School in Royalton, Vermont. The Underground Railroad and the Fugitive Slave, the double panels (nicknamed “Slavery” and “Liberation”) were intended to describe the evils of slavery and the actions of abolitionists and activists in Vermont who helped slaves seek freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Since at least 2001, the school has received complaints from students who have expressed discomfort with the murals. Some have described the images as “cartoonish, almost animal” depictions of enslaved African people, according to court documents.

“We are disappointed with Judge Crawford’s ruling and will appeal to Circuit Two,” Kerson’s lawyers Steven Hyman and Richard Rubin said in an email to Artnet News. They called him “unhappy that more than 25 years after Vermont Law School asked Mr. Kerson to paint these two 24-foot murals commemorating Vermont’s role in the Underground Railroad and celebrated its completion. , she now intends to cover them permanently. ” Concealing the murals is “an affront” to the honor and reputation of the artist, they added.

The school’s attorney wrote in an email to Artnet News: “We are very pleased that the court has upheld the right of Vermont Law School to cover the Kerson mural,” attorney Justin Barnard said. . “[I]It has become clear in recent years that the mural – which many say depicts black bodies in caricatured and stereotypical ways – was incompatible “with the school’s mission and had become a source of contention.

The school also released a statement, saying that it will now, with court approval, “be able to cover the mural to support our students and community members who find the mural offensive due to the way which she caricatures specifically enslaved Africans and casually stereotypes. Black bodies in general, ”according to board chairman Glenn J. Berger.

Samuel Kerson, “Walking to Vermont, “ detail of The Underground Railroad and the Fugitive Slave (1993). Image courtesy of the artist.

In 2013, the school attached plaques to the wall next to artwork explaining the purpose of the mural and its intention to depict the shameful history of slavery as well as Vermont’s role in the railroad. clandestine. However, calls for their removal intensified last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, as social justice movements and protests swept across the United States and the world.

When some of the school’s officials agreed that the works should be removed, its president, Thomas McHenry, sent Kerson a letter advising him of the intention to remove or permanently cover the murals and gave the artist the possibility of removing the murals himself, as well as the offer to restore full ownership.

One point Kerson and the school agree on is that plasterboard cannot be removed without damaging the murals. When Kerson sued the school in December, he applied for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to ban the school from covering the mural while the trial was ongoing. The court ruled and dismissed the petition in March.

The school’s proposal to conceal the murals is not only extraordinarily detailed, it seems to have been taken into account in the judge’s opinion that it is allowed, as it does not directly damage or alter the works. . According to the proposal, the artwork will be covered by “the construction of a wooden frame around the murals that will support the acoustic panels. The panels will permanently conceal the murals from view. Neither the frame nor the panels will actually touch the murals.

Judge Crawford explored questions of modification with respect to VARA and wrote: “Few would describe the cover-up of the fresco as a ‘distortion’ or ‘mutilation’.” He also cited a landmark 2010 VARA case involving artist Christopher Buchel and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), writing: “Another court ruling ruled that hiding a work of art in plain sight does is not a modification or distortion.

The case resembles a 2017 rage centered on a set of Thomas Hart Benton murals in an Indiana University classroom that depicted hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan. When 1,600 people signed a letter asking the school to remove or cover up the offending sign, the school responded by no longer holding classes there in the hope of resolving the controversy without actually removing the offending work. ‘art.

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Nancy I. Romero

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