UPDATE. August 11th, 2016:
Chancellor Bob Meyer had originally said the two 80-year old paintings would be put in storage after UW-Stout’s Diversity Leadership Team complained the works were offensive to Native American students. However, he recently backpedalled and said the paintings would no longer be placed in storage but be moved to a different room where they could be viewed under “controlled circumstances,” after complaints from the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC).
In an interview with local radio this week, Chancellor Meyer said the decision to remove the paintings was a “business” one, meant to encourage more Native American students to apply to the university — an explanation that NCAC deemed “even worse than the move itself.”
The University of Wisconsin-Stout has decided to take down historical paintings that show interactions between white settlers and First Nations people because of their potentially “harmful” effects on students and viewers. The move was sparked by complaints from a diversity group.
One of the paintings shows French fur traders canoeing down the Red Cedar River with American Indians; the other is of a French fort. Both were painted by artist Cal Peters in 1936 and were recently restored with funding by the Wisconsin Historical Society.
After 80 years of decorating the university’s Harvey Hall, the paintings caught the attention of the school’s Diversity Leadership Team (DLT), which complained to the administration that this depiction of First Nations people reinforced racial stereotypes and promoted “acts of domination and oppression.”
After a series of consultations with students, Chancellor Bob Meyer announced the works would removed from the first and second floors of Harvey Hall, as they risked “having a harmful effect on our students and other viewers.”
If the paintings are displayed, it should be in a “controlled gallery space,” he said, with appropriate “context”for viewers. However, the school says that for now, Peters’ works will most likely stay out of public view.
“There’s a segment of Native American students, that when they look at the art, to them it symbolizes an era of their history where land and possessions were taken away from them, and they feel bad when they look at them,” Meyer told Wisconsin Public Radio.
The incident at UW-Stout is the latest in a string of similar controversies surrounding historical paintings, statues and symbols considered reminders of hatred and violence. In May, a complaint was leveled against Norwalk City Hall in Connecticut for displaying a mural showing African-American slaves working along the Mississippi River in the 19th century. After a quorum of residents deemed the painting “inappropriate” for a public building, the mural was removed and placed in storage.
In August last year the University of Texas at Austin took down an imposing statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, that had been on campus since 1933. At the University of Kentucky, a mural showing African American slaves picking tobacco was shrouded in white fabric in December, following complaints from students of color.
In response to the action at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a letter to Meyer arguing that “removing representations of historically oppressed groups from view will not change the facts of history.”