Alvia J. Wardlaw, art history professor and university museum director, decided it best to deliver the news in person. When she notified Harvey Johnson the murals he painted so long ago in Texas Southern University's Hannah Hall had been destroyed, the artist "was devastated" and unable to believe what she was saying was true. The former TSU art teacher of 34 years went to the university and shot video of the walls his work had covered for nearly 40 years, now freshly painted white. How could TSU, the institution to which he had devoted so much of his life, have so little regard for his contribution?
In her book on the murals of university art program founder and TSU professor John Biggers, Wardlaw wrote, "Murals are a degree requirement. Some murals have obviously been more successful than others. After a few months those which do not pass the test of repeated viewing are painted over, and those segments are assigned to other students. It is a great challenge to a student to be given a chance to paint a mural which may become a permanent part of a busy building, viewed by thousands each year." Johnson collaborated with the renowned artist on several mural projects and the two remained dear friends until Biggers death in 2001.
Faculty and staff were outraged over the destruction of what many regarded as two of the most valuable historical murals in the Hannah Hall collection. The initial explanation offered by TSU spokesperson Eva Pickens was, "The paintings were very badly deteriorated and they inadvertently painted over them." However, a September 6th article in the Metropolitan section of the Chronicle brought the already tense situation to a head. TSU President John Rudley said that there was no mistake; he had given the orders to paint over the murals, which he crassly described as "eyesores." Even more shocking was his lack of respect for the historical value of the work, his sole motivation being the entertainment of hypothetical heads of state, and the pompous assumption that they would share his views on art. "When I bring dignitaries to campus, I can't have them seeing that kind of thing. All art isn't good art."
News of the whitewashed murals spread quickly through the collegiate art community, revealing similar feelings of frustration with university administration across the country.
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"The destruction of TSU's historical murals 'Makes Me Wanna Holler' ([to borrow a] phrase from Nathan McCall). It has been a long struggle for many art professors at historical black institutions. We have watched our departments demeaned in the academy. Art works produced by faculty labeled as insignificant, terminal degrees in visual arts categorized with master degrees, and administrators taking the role of art critics and experts as they purchase commercial art for campus displays while destroying or ignoring historical works of art on campus."
Peggy Blood, PhD President NAAHBCU Distinguished Professor of Art, Savannah State University From blackartinamerica.com
Students began organizing a protest to be held on Monday, September 13th to express their outrage towards the administration. It's unclear what exactly happened next, but the rally was rescheduled in the eleventh hour to the following afternoon, possibly because Monday's efforts lost steam after the following letter was sent to students and staff from President John Rudley:
Texas Southern University September 13, 2010 FROM: President John M. Rudley RE: Mural Preservation Program ______________________________________ Dear Texas Southern Faculty, Staff, Students, and Alumni,
We are launching an official campaign to preserve the murals at Texas Southern University, including the student murals in Hannah Hall. Initial restoration discussions began two years ago for the art program to develop a preservation plan for the murals.
I am moving the project ahead by providing $50,000 to hire a conservator who will review the murals and develop a plan for restoration, preservation and conservation of all of the murals.
I am committed to preserving the great history of Texas Southern University and its mural and art program, as well as its African Art Collection, significant letters and papers and major archives, including the papers of Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland. I am looking forward to receiving the conservator's plan that will include an assessment of the murals to determine which murals should be restored, the priority for restoration and a budget to determine the full cost of the program so that we can develop a systematic plan to fund the preservation of TSU's artistic treasures.
College of Liberal Arts and Behavioral Sciences Dean Danille Taylor is creating a Mural Preservation task force of faculty, alumni and students to lead the efforts and the funding campaign once the assessment is completed. The dean and the task force will work with the Office of Development to develop funding requests to private foundations and corporations and the Office of Research to assist with grant proposals to state and federal agencies.
Student Government President Kedarious Colbert has been working with student leaders and students in the art program to identify projects that the students can undertake to assist with the funding and preservation efforts. One project they have suggested is an "Adopt-a-Mural" program where donors can identify with a specific mural and assist with funding its restoration.
The University Museum recently received a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services for $80,000 to catalog and photograph the full Texas Southern art collection, which will allow the University to develop a web-based tour of all the art on campus.
The mural project has been added to the online donor opportunities for alumni and individual donors on the TSU website, www.tsu.edu/giving. For more information on the Mural Preservation campaign, contact Dean Danille Taylor, email@example.com, or TSU Director of Development Carolyne Oliver, firstname.lastname@example.org.
If he thought they were "eyesores" before, just imagine how much those murals will burn President Rudley when he's reminded daily of his $50,000 mistake--we're told they're located just outside his office. Priceless.