The creator of the now-controversial mural in Memorial Hall said the faculty paid no attention to her art during the eight months she and her sculptor-husband labored on the New Deal Public Works of Art Project. Ann Rice O’Hanlon would probably be pleased then that, 82 years later, her art spurred a good bit of soul-searching in her home state and an examination of how her alma mater can better support diversity.
The mural has been under a shroud since late last year when University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto heard concerns from students that its historical depictions of black Kentuckians and Native Americans were hurtful and offensive.
Capilouto’s decision to cover the painting was criticized as an attempt to sanitize Kentucky’s past and an act of censorship unbecoming a university. Critics also said that covering a few images that some found disturbing was a token compared with UK’s larger institutional barriers to equity.
Capilouto appointed a committee to consider all the issues raised by the flap. And, last week, in addition to announcing plans to uncover the painting, UK also unveiled a five-point commitment to improving diversity on campus. As the Herald-Leader’s Linda Blackford reported, the goals include:
▪ Increase accessibility to resources and funding for organizations, scholarships and programming. As an example, Capilouto said, last year about 100 students from under-represented groups received “persistence grants,” which help with unmet financial need.
▪ Restructure the Office for Institutional Diversity to make it more effective. Create better benchmarks for diversity and accountability. Those include the 2015 strategic plan, which requires closing achievement gaps between different student groups.
▪ Increase the number of black, Hispanic and Native American professors and staff, and increase retention.
▪ Create a core curriculum class on race and ethnicity.
We’ve heard other plans through the years to overcome UK’s regrettable racial history and create a more welcoming culture for all, plans that have made a difference but also have fallen short. The effects of this latest plan could be profound if Capilouto brings the same resolve with which he has remade UK’s physical campus to the challenge of opening up richer opportunities for all the people who make up UK’s community.
A committee appointed by Capilouto also recommended creating a more complete context for the mural, a fresco painted into the plaster, by surrounding it with works by diverse artists and a digital narrative to tell the history of the mural and O’Hanlon (1908-1998) who achieved recognition as an artist and teacher in California.
Congratulations to those who worked toward a resolution that would be respectful to all, celebrate diversity and foster a more inclusive UK. We look forward to the unveilings.