Painted in the 1950s, the above mural was under fire for the “lack of diversity” depicted, and URI recently decided to preserve the image and include a description of life during that time, rather than get rid of it. Photo courtesy of URI.

URI to preserve existing murals, commission new ones

KINGSTON – The University of Rhode Island will be uncovering and preserving murals painted nearly 70 years ago in the Memorial Union, with plans to commission new art depicting student life today. 

The existing mural, which features whimsical cartoons from the 1950s era at URI, depicts students returning to campus by train at Kingston Station, alumni coming back for a class reunion, students piled in a jalopy wearing letter sweaters and a marching band – among other scenes. 

The fate of the whimsical cartoons painted by Arthur “Art” Sherman, ’50, were thrown into question last year, however, after the university received numerous complaints from students about the lack of diversity represented in the images. 

The university decided to cover up the murals last summer while establishing “a diverse committee consisting of students, alumni, staff and faculty to consider suggestions and input.”

The committee was formed in January, according to a recent statement from the university, and “through late winter and spring, the committee met online about a dozen times and worked to establish a process by which historical perspectives, public outreach, and solicitation of various opinions could be accomplished by a late spring deadline.”

These 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. The meetings also presented potential solutions and the solutions found by other educational and historical institutions to resolve those controversies.

In order to engage the larger campus community in the decision making process, more than 86,000 individuals – including alumni, students, faculty, and staff – were asked to provide their feedback in a survey in late April. That survey generated more than 200 responses.  

The committee also held discussions with the Sherman family,  individual alumni, and the Student Senate, among others, according to the URI Assistant Director of Communications Dave Lavallee.

“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,” the statement from the university continued. “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.”

The decision was weighed over the past six months under the care of an eight-person advisory committee, and it was ultimately decided that the murals should be uncovered and remain in place. In the event of any future building renovations, the committee also advised best efforts be taken to preserve the artwork. 

After hearing opinions and feedback from a wide breadth of stakeholders, the advisory committee also came to the decision that adjacent to 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.

Although the murals fell under criticism for its lacking depictions of diversity last year, the images, according to Art Sherman, 96, and his family, give an accurate depiction of student life during that era. At the time the murals were painted, there were less than 2,000 students enrolled at the university – the vast majority of whom were white men, who had recently returned home from the war. 

Today, the University of Rhode Island is attended by more than 17,000 students, and 23 percent of first-year students identify as students of color. There are 48 states and 76 nations represented in today’s student body, and there are also far more women on campus, according to admission statistics from the university. 

When the murals were covered up last summer, and the possibility of them being removed entirely seemed to be on the table, Sherman and his family had been upset that his contributions, and his fellow alumni, might be forgotten. 

The World War II Veteran painted the mural in 1953, and in the years to follow, would go on to serve as an associate professor for three full decades at his alma mater. 

In addition to acknowledging the changing demographics and growing diversity on campus alongside the original murals, the advisory committee came to the decision that the university should add necessary context about the artist’s contributions and services to his community, the university and the nation. 

The final recommendation from the advisory committee gives directives to the university to “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.”

When the University of Rhode Island announced plans to uncover and preserve the murals, and that plans are underway to commission new, contemporary murals, Sherman’s daughter, Pamela, shared that the family was elated. 

“I’m just looking forward to the future,” she told Channel 10 WJAR last week. “This is so exciting. These murals are going to look terrific, they’re going to have some history there for people to pay attention to.” 

“My dad, he is very happy, my family is delighted,” she added. “He’s not the kind of guy that wants to be in the spotlight, it’s really not a personal thing for him. It’s really for the alumni of that era and preserving history and that’s what he’s really happy about.”

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