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New course for an old conflict

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Last summer’s violent protests over the fate of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Va., reverberated across the country, sparking debate about how modern America should reckon with controversial public reminders of its past.

The topic was already a familiar one at the University of New Mexico.

Critics have long derided the “Three Peoples” murals at Zimmerman Library as racist in their various depictions of Native Americans, Hispanics and Anglos. Kenneth Adams’ 1939 artwork was defaced multiple times in the 1970s, triggered a wave of debate in the 1990s, and more recently led library staff and faculty to complain about a hostile work environment.

“By perpetuating stereotypes and not accurately depicting the true diversity of New Mexico’s peoples and cultures, the mural stands both as a distortion of history and a dubious projection of the University of New Mexico’s character and mission,” library employees wrote in a 2016 letter to the dean of libraries.

UNM student Yolanda Coriz studies beneath  the "Three Peoples" murals in the West Wing of the University of New Mexico's Zimmerman Library

Found in the West Wing of the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman Library, the “Three Peoples” murals have long been criticized. UNM student Yolanda Coriz is pictured studying beneath them. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

That background, combined with the current national discourse, prompted UNM to turn the question – How should UNM address the Zimmerman murals? – into an academic exercise. It launched a three-credit, interdisciplinary class for the spring semester to examine the situation from a variety of angles and make recommendations to the administration.

“We wanted the university to do what universities do – study the issue and have informed debate,” said Alex Lubin, an American studies professor and UNM’s interim associate provost for faculty development. He teaches the course with Kymberly Pinder, an art history professor and the College of Fine Arts dean.

Pinder has taught a course on the history of mural-making for years, and she used that as a base for this more issue-specific class. More than 30 speakers have agreed to participate.

 Painted in 1939 to represent New Mexico's Native American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures, the "Three Peoples" murals at the University of New Mexico have long sparked controversy

Painted in 1939 to represent New Mexico’s Native American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures, the “Three Peoples” murals at the University of New Mexico have long sparked controversy. UNM has created a class to discuss the issue from various angles and to make recommendations to leaders about how to address it. Jacqueline Cai, a graduate student, studies under one of the work’s four panels. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The course will cover subjects like historic preservation, free speech, New Deal art, Native and Chicano representation, restorative justice and the UNM process for making change. Former students who protested the murals decades ago will also lend their perspective.

Pinder said the murals question is multifaceted.

“It’s easy to make this all about racial conflicts and cultural sensitivities, but I think it’s also about public art,” she said, adding that such work evolves over time to serve its community. “Neither the art nor the university should be static – or can be.”

UNM listed the class across multiple disciplines, and it has drawn students from art history, studio art, Native American studies, Chicana/o studies, American studies and more.

More than 40 attend the class in person and about 25 more take the online version. All lectures are open to the public and are also filmed and posted online.

Pinder said she will divide the students into groups that will each develop proposals for the murals. Experts will review recommendations and help students hone them before sending them to UNM’s leadership for consideration.

Pinder said students learned early in the semester that changes could require several levels of approval, including perhaps entities outside UNM. She said she wanted them to understand the nuances and limitations to make the most informed cases possible.

Art conservator Heather Galloway talks about conservation and the "Three Peoples" murals at the University of New Mexico during a new interdisciplinary class focused on the artwork

Art conservator Heather Galloway talks about conservation and the “Three Peoples” murals at the University of New Mexico during a new interdisciplinary class focused on the artwork.

“It really is collaborative problem-solving, and that’s what we’re supposed to be training our students to do in almost every class,” Pinder said.

Lubin has also formed a task force with representatives from across campus to address the situation. He said that group may also come up with recommendations.

Through the years, some people have called for the murals’ removal. Others have said UNM should formally recognize critics’ concerns with a nearby plaque or new mural.

Other options include simply covering them with plywood or different art, Lubin said. Pinder said some preservationists want them to stay as is.

Most students did not enroll in the class with a specific position regarding the murals’ fate, Lubin said. A poll the first day of class revealed that about half had never even seen them.

But some students already know they want the murals removed.

Jennifer Marley, a Native American studies major enrolled in the class, said removal is her long-term objective, although she would like to see something else done in the interim – perhaps projecting something else over the “The Three Peoples.”

“I like the idea of projection but also don’t want to give up on having them eradicated completely. I’d like to push for getting that process started regardless of how many years it would take,” said Marley, who was also involved in the recent campaign for UNM to abolish its official seal.

Pinder said she is not aware of any other university tackling a similar issue this way, and those she has talked to from outside UNM have described it as an innovative approach.

Lubin said it could serve as a model for other institutions grappling with controversial artwork or monuments.

“This is where I think we are ahead of the curve,” he said. “We are using all of the tools of a research university to (foster an) informed discussion and debate, rather that just appointing a task force that makes a decision.”

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