Alumnae Lounge murals taken down over absence of people of color

The mural painted on the walls of the Alumnae Lounge is pictured. Lyndon Jackson / The Tufts Daily

A team of painting conservators removed 1955 murals depicting Charles Tufts, other university founders and prominent white alumni from the Alumnae Lounge over the summer, according to TuftsNow. The decision to remove the murals came after the recommendation of a review committee formed in 2018 following outcry about the absence of people of color in the murals, according to an email from University President Anthony Monaco.

In a Feb. 13 memo to then-Provost ad interim Deborah Kochevar, the six-member review committee unanimously recommended the removal of the murals.

While acknowledging the progressive purpose of the room and its decorative program, the committee strongly feels that the murals do not reflect the dynamic, ever evolving composition of the student and alumni body (or faculty and staff),Andrew McClellan, the chair of the committee and a professor of art history, wrote in the recommendation.

The review committee consisted of McClellan; Katrina Moore, director of the Africana Center; Robert Mack, chief diversity officer; Pearl Robinson, an associate professor of political science specializing in African American politics; Katherine Kaplan (AG’95), an alumni trustee; and Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator of the university art galleries.

McClellan and Robinson did not respond to repeated requests for further comment on the decision while Mack and Moore declined to comment.

Kochevar stressed that creating an inclusive environment was central to the decision.

“We want to attract a diversity of people to the university. But no less important, when they arrive, we want them to feel they belong here,” Kochevar told TuftsNow.

Deitsch told the Daily in an email that the egg tempera murals were painted on canvas, enabling their removal without damage to the walls.

Before the murals were removed, they were professionally photographed and merged into a 360 degree image which will allow them to be viewed online, according to Deitsch.

Deitsch said the discussion about the murals was part of the reason for the establishment of a new public art committee to decide the future of the Alumnae Lounge. The committee will also lay out new policies governing the maintenance and the commissioning of new permanent and long-term art installations to augment the existing Permanent Art Collection policy.

That committee, chaired by Deitsch, will set an agenda for these issues at a meeting in September.

Sung-Min Kim, who spoke at a symposium on the fate of the murals in March 2018 and wrote an op-ed in the Observer calling for their removal a month later, praised the decision.

“The truth is that people actually feel uncomfortable in that space because of the murals and the racist whitewashed narrative that it tells,” Kim, a junior, said in an email to the Daily. “The murals cause a deep and disturbing level of discomfort rooted in colonial history. And this mural is in a space full of students who are still learning to be comfortable in their skin. So in my logic, there’s no space for a mural like that on this campus.”

While Kim agreed that the murals do not reflect current Tufts students, she went further, saying they represented a case of intentional exclusion.

“It’s not a mistake that this mural asserts a racist whitewashed colonial narrative that completely erases the violent history on colored bodies that the university was founded on and continues to benefit from,” she said. “This kind of racist narrative is deep in the foundations of the university and this mural was simply one visual illustration/example of such.”

Adriana Zavala, an associate professor of art history who also supports the decision, stressed the omission in the murals of any of the black students who attended Tufts in 1955 as harmful for the Tufts community, and she dismissed arguments for keeping them up.

“[The murals are] an example of a sort of white dominance of the historical narrative. You can make the argument that they are a teachable moment, but that doesn’t address the ongoing daily violence they do to people whose histories are omitted in this country chronically,” she said.

Zavala recalled the paradox of a November 2017 dinner in the Alumnae Lounge for what is now the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora with the theme of racism’s global manifestations, surrounded by the all-white figures on the murals.

Maxine Bell, who, like Kim, spoke at the 2018 symposium, described similar discomfort caused by the murals during Orientation Week events and the Day of Remembrance, which commemorates Japanese American internment.

“It’s not easy to be in a space where you’re trying to uplift communities of color and then have none of that represented around us,” Bell, a junior, said.

The decision comes in the context of a series of debates over depictions of minorities in public art, and in murals more specifically. Debate over what to do with Work Progress Administration murals showing the life of George Washington at a San Francisco high school have made headlines around the globe, while murals at Dartmouth College, Kalamazoo College, the University of Kentucky and the University of New Mexico have sparked controversy in recent years.

However, the Alumnae Lounge murals have their own unique history.

Adrienne Pruitt, a collections management archivist at Tufts, explained that the Ruth Capen Farmer Alumnae Hall Fund, which built the Alumnae Lounge, likely paid for the murals.

Boston artists Nathaniel J. Jacobson and Matthew W. Boyhan were commissioned to paint the mural and worked with Provost John P. Tilton, Dean of Men Clifton Emery Jr. and the public relations office to decide who would be portrayed, according to Pruitt.

The murals pay particular attention to alumnae such as Ruth Capen Farmer (WA’1902), the founder of the Association of Tufts Alumnae; Etta Philips MacPhie (WA’1913), the first female member for life of the Board of Trustees; and Cora Polk Dewick (WA’1896), the first woman elected to the Board of Trustees.

Pruitt said she has not found evidence in the historical record of unconscious bias in the selection of the figures, but highlighted the role structural bias may have played.

Echoing the review committee, Pruitt highlighted the fact that there were prominent black alumni at the time who are absent from the mural. She named Forrester Blanchard Washington (A’1909), a pioneer in social work, and Madeline Barnard (J’1920), a public servant, among others.

“It’s not like they put in anybody who wasn’t at Tufts or depicted things that weren’t at Tufts, [but] they were definitely selective about what parts of history they included and it definitely wasn’t an inclusive decision,” she said.

Pruitt noted that work by former Tufts professor Gerald Gill showed that at least 25 African Americans were enrolled at Tufts between 1905 and 1945 and 50 more between 1945 and 1965, representing a tenth of 1% of total enrollment.

According to Deitsch, the paintings are now in long-term art storage and will be restored by the conservators due to tape and water damage.

For Kim, the removal of the murals represents an opportunity for new art installations in the Alumnae Lounge that would be progressive and inclusive.

“If there were to be a new mural I think it would be crucial to have as many students involved as possible. The various centers (Latino Center, Africana Center, AA Center, etc) would be a great place to start with smaller discussions on what people would like to see in a public mural,” she said.

The committee agreed with Kim’s sentiment.

“Should the administration agree to remove the murals, the committee further recommends that … whatever group is tasked with the future decoration of the space should be fully representative of the rich diversity of Tufts students and alumni,” the report said.