“Perrault’s Trading Fort”; “French Trappers on the Red Cedar” (WPA Paintings)
Artist: Cal Peters
Date of Action: August 2016
Region: North America
Location: Menomonie, WI
Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion
Confronting Bodies: University's Diversity Leadership Team (DLT); Chancellor Bob Meyer at the University of Wisconsin-Stout
Description of Artwork: Two paintings, “Perrault’s Trading Fort” and “French Trappers on the Red Cedar,” which were commissioned under the Works Progress Administration and painted by artist Cal Peters in 1935-36 and hung in University of Wisconsin-Stout's Harvey Hall, a building undergoing major renovations. The paintings depict interactions between white traders and First Nations people.
The Incident: In preparation for the Hall's grand re-opening in fall 2016, the paintings were to be restored by university art students under the direction of their professors. (The restoration work, funded by the Wisconsin Historical Society, began back in 2013). The paintings caught the eye of the University's Diversity Leadership Team (DLT) who expressed concern that the depiction of First Nations people would reinforce racial stereotypes. The issue was brought to the attention of University Chancellor Bob Meyer who, after a series of discussions with the DLT, announced that two of the three historic paintings were to be removed from public view at their location in Harvey Hall because of their potentially "harmful effect" on students and other viewers. Chancellor Meyer announced that the paintings would be placed in storage. The Chancellor did not consult the rest of the university faculty, groups or student body prior to the making of the decision. Timothy Shiell, an English and Philosophy professor at the University, contacted NCAC about the incident.
NCAC wrote a joint letter with FIRE asking that the paintings not be removed and offering to assist in the conversation.
Results of Incident: Shortly after receiving NCAC and FIRE’s letter on Friday, Aug 5th, Wisconsin-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer announced the two paintings will not be placed into storage but will instead be relocated for display under “controlled circumstances.”
In an interview with local radio, Chancellor Meyer explained the intent behind his initial decision was not to censor, but was rather a strategic “business” move to encourage more Native American student applications to the university.
NCAC responded with a statement: "While we are pleased that the works will remain on display, the Chancellor's explanation of the decision to move the paintings to a less visible location is even worse than the move itself. In justifying the decision as a ‘business’ one, whereby more Native Americans may be attracted to Stout were they spared the encounter with a national history which may make them ‘feel bad,’ he appears to be treating future students as mere consumers and education as a mere product. This betrays the mission of a University, which is to challenge, to help students confront the past critically, to make them think. Encounters with an often brutal history are part of the educational process, censoring stories that don’t feel good is not. What’s worse is the disrespectful and patronizing assumption that future students need to be shielded from these historical realities."