I am certain that all parties agree that resolution of the issues provoked by the Ann Rice O’Hanlon murals in Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky should be achieved by a thoughtful and considerate process.
To that end, there are certain legal and biographical elements to the story of the murals which need to be clearly stated.
First, the mural was commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project. Such commissions were granted through a competitive process and paid for in one lump sum.
As clearly stated in the document, “Legal title to art work produced under the 1930s and 1940s New Deal Administration” the O’Hanlon mural, like all others, belongs to the federal government, under the supervision of the General Services Administration.
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The GSA considers all PWAP murals to be on loan to the institutions for which they were created and a loan agreement was issued. Any deliberative process regarding moving or altering the O’Hanlon mural should be regarded as an effort to be “released from the responsibility of custody of the work …”, and contact with the GSA should be made.
Second, important primary, biographical information exists in the form of an oral history of O’Hanlon conducted by Mary Fuller McChesney for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, on July 8, 1964.
O’Hanlon, a native Kentuckian, goes into great detail about her goals for the mural, her deep appreciation for the people and history of Lexington, and her passion for creating an actual fresco … by painting into fresh plaster. She conceived of the mural as a tribute to craftsmen of old, as “the one and only and probably last fresco” ever created in the commonwealth.
“Curiously enough” she stated, “the most interested audience I had, while I was working on it, were the Negro janitors on the University grounds and they would come in every night and watch me paint and sometimes bring me apples or coca colas. They were just delightful people to keep my spirit up …”
In none of her frank, and revealing, comments does O’Hanlon make reference to any socio-political agenda. Serious consideration should be given to the intent of the artist, which was never a racist denial of slavery or a callous disregard for African-American life.
Adding those facts to a well-considered deliberative process should only elevate the issue from one of narrow concern to one of broader, and, it is to be hoped, humanistic proportion.
Estill Curtis Pennington is an art historian living in Bourbon County.