KINGSTON, R.I. – A pair of 1950s murals of campus life at the University of Rhode Island will be preserved rather than destroyed during a renovation of the student Memorial Union, URI announced this week.
Last year, the fate of the mural painted almost 70 years ago by Arthur “Art” Sherman, a World War II veteran with strong ties to the university, was up in the air.
School officials covered up and planned to destroy the murals — depicting servicemen returning to Kingston, a class reunion, URI commencement, a South County beach scene, and students piled into a jalopy wearing letter sweaters. School officials said they received complaints that the scenes don’t represent URI today.
But after months of review by an advisory committee, URI said it would uncover the murals and add language to provide “context” and information about the artist and the era during which they were painted and commission new art that would depict university life today.
Sherman, 95, is a member of the URI class of 1950. In 1954, around the time he painted them, total enrollment was 1,956, with 1,412 men and 544 women. Most of the students were from Rhode Island – 1,687.
Today, the university enrolls more than 17,000 students, 57 percent of them women. Twenty-one percent are non-white. Students come from 48 U.S. states, districts and territories and 76 nations.
Next steps will involve fundraising to accomplish the recommendations, including the cleaning and preservation of the existing murals. A new mural will be done as part of major Memorial Union renovations slated to begin in 2022.
The university’s leadership team reviewed the Memorial Union Advisory Committee’s recommendations and voted unanimously to accept all of them. The move follows about six months of work by the eight-member committee.
The committee began its work in January to address the 1954 murals and to make recommendations about their future. Through late winter and spring, the committee met online about a dozen times and worked to establish a process where historical perspectives, public outreach and solicitation of various opinions could be accomplished by a late spring deadline.
The meetings included historical and contextual presentations on the murals and on other art works in public situations, both nearby and nationally, that have generated controversy. It explored the solutions found by other educational and historical institutions to resolve those controversies.
The committee also held an e-mail survey to gauge public opinion. A little more than 86,000 individuals received the survey, including alumni, students, faculty and staff, URI said. It generated more than 200 responses.
The committee also held discussions with the Sherman family, individual alumni and the Student Senate, among others.
Among the committee’s recommendations approved by the university leadership:
• Existing murals should be uncovered for public display and best efforts should be made to preserve the murals during any future building upgrade.
• Adjacent to the murals, the university should add necessary context about the artist’s contributions/services to the country, university and community.
• Adjacent to the murals, the university should add necessary context regarding the original intent of the murals to depict life on campus at the time they were created.
• The university should commission a new work of art to depict diverse university life as it is today, to be installed in the Memorial Union in similar size and impact to the existing murals.
Part of the committee’s work included receiving public input and considering the multi-disciplinary perspectives of the committee members, gathering opinions from current students, alumni and community members through a survey, and gathering historical research on the murals and Sherman.
The university said it “appreciates the patience of the university community, including Dr. Sherman and his family and our alumni members, which allowed the university to conduct a thorough assessment of the issue and to hear the numerous perspectives on Dr. Sherman’s work.
“Every effort was made to hear and consider the various (and sometimes very different) reactions to the murals and to correct or clarify any misinformation on the murals or the process through which the committee was working,” URI said. “Considering all the input from these sources and other key examples of controversial or challenging public art works, the committee concluded that this was a unique opportunity to interpret the current murals, to support reflection of today’s diverse URI community, and to commission another, new expression of contemporary campus life.”