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Forum Focuses On The Past And Future Of UK's Public Art

Josh James

Art experts joined University of Kentucky faculty and students for a forum on public art and its proper role Monday. The event was part of a bourgening campus and community conversation centered around diversity and inclusivity.

Art on UK’s campus became a flashpoint in 2015 when students questioned the messages sent by a 1930s mural in Memorial Hall containing depictions of black men and women toiling in tobacco fields and other racially charged imagery. The fresco has since been temporarily shrouded from public view and a special panel has yet to announce a permanent decision on the artwork’s future.  

While planning for Monday’s forum predated that controversy, UK Art Museum director Stuart Horodner said the debate is instructive. Some art may seem benign, he notes, "but all the sudden looked at through a filter of race or identity or sexuality or violence or some other thing that we all live with... it becomes an opportunity to look differently at what you're surrounded by."

Credit Josh James / WUKY
A controversial 1930s fresco is currently covered in Memorial Hall

One student at the meeting expressed a disconnect with much of the art on display, which the panel agreed often lacks explanation or context. Others reminded the audience of the struggles faced by minorities working toward greater recognition.

UK African American and Afrikana Studies Program director Melynda Price said the university has a unique role in fostering intellectual discussion around art.

"To allow things that betray or that go uncorrected or unresponded to in our midst is to actually go against what is, I think, our larger mission, which is about a certain kind of education both to our students and to our community because of our land grant mission," she argued.

Organizers say they hope the event served as a starting point for more conversation and potential policy recommendations regarding public art.

The forum was sponsored by the UK Art Museum, the University Senate Council, and the UK Division of Undergraduate Education.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.
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