Judge hears arguments over school plan to cover up murals

ROYALTON, Vermont (AP) – A federal judge heard arguments on Friday over whether a private institution, Vermont Law School, had the right to conceal two large murals against the artists’ wishes, as some members of the school community find them racially offensive.

Artist Samuel Kerson painted murals titled “Vermont, The Underground Railroad” and “Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” for the school on two walls inside a building in 1994. Last year, the The school said they would paint on it and, when the artist objected, said they would cover the murals with acoustic tiles instead.

“Despite its beneficial intentions, the mural did not age well. Its portrayal of African Americans seems caricature and offensive to some viewers, and the mural has become a source of contention and distraction at Vermont Law School – an institution whose explicit mission is to educate students in a diverse community ” the school said in a statement. filing in court in response to a lawsuit filed by Kerson.

Lawyers for Kerson, who lives in Quebec, have argued in court documents that the artwork is protected by the Visual Rights Act which protects artists’ works from “distortion, mutilation or other alteration.” .. which would be prejudicial to (their) honor or reputation. “

Students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski said in an email last year that they were concerned about the work’s accuracy, according to Valley News.

“One problem among many is the fact that representations of blacks are completely inaccurate. Whatever story is told, exaggerating black lines is not acceptable and should not be tolerated. The white colonizers who are responsible for the horrors of slavery should not also be portrayed as saviors in the same way, ”they said.

Lawyers for both sides offered different interpretations of the Visual Rights Act on Friday in a hearing at Vermont Law School, attended by about 150 students and staff.

In passing the law, Congress did not intend to force an institution to display works of art that it no longer wishes to display, said Justin Barnard, a lawyer for the school. The second issue is whether erecting a wall could create environmental conditions that will cause the murals to deteriorate over time, he said. Although Barnard admitted that the school had not consulted with an art conservator, he said he was under no obligation to do so. The visual rights law is not about preserving works of art to protect them over time, he said.

Kerson’s attorney, Steven Hyman, disagreed, saying the purpose of the law was not to regulate art but to “the culture and preservation of art.”

“They can’t take action because they don’t like art anymore and damage Sam Kerson’s reputation,” he said.

The school’s plan is to put up a wall, permanently blocking the mural from being seen, “what if deterioration happens, so what?” Hyman said.

In March, U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford dismissed Kerson’s motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent Vermont Law School from installing a panel barrier in front of the murals. Crawford later gave Kerson more time to show how movement would damage the artwork. Vermont Law School says the lawsuit should be dismissed. Crawford is expected to rule at a later date.

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