Racial Injustice School Murals

A federal judge heard arguments Friday over whether the private Vermont Law School in Royalton, Vt., seen Friday, has a right to conceal two large murals against the artists’ wishes because some members of the school community find them racially offensive. Associated Press/Lisa Rathke

ROYALTON, Vt. — A federal judge heard arguments on Friday about whether a private institution, Vermont Law School, has a right to conceal two large murals against the artists’ wishes because some members of the school community find them racially offensive.

Artist Samuel Kerson painted the murals entitled “Vermont, The Underground Railroad” and “Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” for the school on two walls inside a building in 1994. Last year the school said it would paint over them and, when the artist objected, said it would instead cover the murals with accoutistic tiles.

“Despite its beneficent intentions, the mural has not aged well. Its depiction of African Americans strikes some viewers as caricatured and offensive, and the mural has become a source of discord and distraction at Vermont Law School — an institution whose explicit mission it is to educate students in a diverse community,” the school said in a court filing in response to a lawsuit filed by Kerson.

Lawyers for Kerson, who lives in Quebec, argued in court papers that the artwork is protected by the Visual Rights Act that safeguards artists’ works from “distortion, mutilation, or other modification … which would be prejudicial to (their) honor or reputation.”

Students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski said in an email last year that they were concerned about the artwork’s accuracy, according to the Valley News.

“One issue of many, is the fact that the depictions of Black people are completely inaccurate. Regardless of what story is being told, overexaggerating Black features is not OK and should not be tolerated. White colonizers who are responsible for the horrors of slavery should not also be depicted as saviors in the same light,” they said.

On Friday, the attorneys for both sides offered different intepretations of the Visual Rights Act at a hearing held at Vermont Law School, attended by about 150 students and staff.

When passing the act, Congress did not intend to compel an institution to display artwork that it no longer wishes to display, said Justin Barnard, a lawyer for the school. The second issue is whether erecting a wall could create environmental conditions that will cause the murals to deteriorate over time, he said. While Barnard admitted that the school did not consult with an art conservator, he said it’s not required to do so. The Visual Rights Act is not about the preservation of art work to protect it over time, he said.

Kerson’s lawyer, Steven Hyman, disagreed, saying the purpose of the statute is not about the regulation of art but about “culture and preservation of art.”

“They can’t take steps because they don’t like the art anymore and harm the reputation of Sam Kerson,” he said.

The school’s plan is to put up a wall, permenently blocking the mural from being seen, “and if deterioration happens, so what?” Hyman said.

In March, U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford denied Kerson’s motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent Vermont Law School from installing a barrier of panels in front of the murals. Crawford later gave Kerson more time to show how the move would damage the artwork. Vermont Law School says the lawsuit should be dismissed. Crawford is expected to rule at a later date.

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