Changing times … a more complete context

The mural behind the drape is the work of accomplished artist and University of Kentucky alum, Ann Rice O’Hanlon. Funded in the 1930s as a Public Works of Art Project, it attempts to depict the evolution of our state from frontier settlement to an era of advancement in medicine, science and education. It is considered by some to be one of the most important works of its kind in the Commonwealth. However, the audience for this work — and the times in which it was created — have changed dramatically. The University of Kentucky of the 1930s is the not the University of Kentucky of 2015 and beyond. Indeed, the mural was created at a time and in a place when African American students or faculty were not welcomed on our campus. Fortunately, our community is very different now — compellingly diverse and more complete.

The irony is that in this instance artistic talent, however skilled or well-intentioned, sanitizes history, painting over the stark reality of unimaginable brutality, pain, and suffering represented by the enslavement of our fellow women and men. We can no longer allow that to stand alone, unanswered by and unaccountable to, the evolutionary trajectory of our human understanding and our human spirit. Discussions have commenced across our campus to find a long-term answer for this challenge — the challenge of acknowledging our history as expressed by important works of art frozen in another time and place and reconciling it with the understanding, complexity and diversity of audiences and perspectives that comprise our University community. Our firmest hope is to reach a resolution that is respectful of every perspective. 

In the interim, we will shroud the painting from view until we create a new wall, if you will, designed to welcome and educate.

I hope that for us, this work of art can be transformed in a sense and help us take another step forward in our journey together toward reconciliation. It is a journey we can only take together. As O'Hanlon's nephew, UK alum and noted writer Wendell Berry, reminds us, "the grace that is the health of creatures can only be held in common. In healing, the scattered members come together. In health, the flesh is graced, the holy enters the world.” We are in this world together, often torn apart by differences in race and perspective, identity and background; but held together, ultimately, by our common humanity and a commitment to doing what is just, what is right.

I welcome your suggestions for a long-term resolution: