Federal Court of Appeal hears hidden murals case
Associated Press — A New York federal appeals court is considering whether a Vermont law school altered a pair of large murals when it hid them behind a wall of panels against the artist’s wishes after they were considered by some members of the school community as racist.
Artist Sam Kerson created the colorful murals titled “Vermont, The Underground Railroad” and “Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” in 1993 on two walls inside a Vermont Law School building, now called Vermont Law and Graduate School, South Royalton. Years later, in 2020, the school said it would paint them. But when Kerson objected, he said he would cover them with acoustic tiles. The school gave Kerson the option of removing the murals, but he said he couldn’t without damaging them.
When Kerson, who lives in Quebec, sued in federal court in Vermont, the school said in a court filing that “depictions of African Americans strike some viewers as cartoonish and offensive, and the mural has become a source of contention and distraction”.
Kerson lost his case in U.S. District Court in Vermont. He appealed and the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case on Friday.
Kerson’s attorney again argued that the artwork is protected by the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, which was enacted “to protect artists from alteration and destruction that injures their honor. or their reputation,” said Steven Hyman.
He said covering the artwork in an attempt to prevent people from seeing it is an alteration and that Kerson “must suffer the indignity and humiliation of having a sign placed over his art” .
But school attorney Justin Barnard argued that covering the artwork with a wooden frame that doesn’t touch the paint and is attached to the wall is not an alteration.
“The modification implies that there is something left, it is a modified form,” Barnard told the judges. He also said that hiding the artwork is not destruction.
“There is a unique hurt felt when you destroy something and take it off the face of the earth. That’s not what this is about,” he said. “We are simply talking about the right of a private institution or an individual to remove a work from exhibition.”
When questioned by the judges, Barnard said the school intended to leave the wall in place, at least for the rest of the artist’s life.