URI provides updates on Memorial Union murals

Leadership votes to preserve murals, add new art to depict university life today

KINGSTON, R.I. — June 30, 2021 — The University’s Senior Leadership Team has decided to uncover and preserve the 1950s-era murals in the lower level of the Memorial Union, add language to provide context and information about the artist and the era during which the murals were painted and commission new art that would depict University life today.

Last summer, the University decided to cover the murals to protect them while discussions were held with the campus community and alumni about the future of the murals in the context of major renovations to the Memorial Union. They were painted by Dr. Arthur Sherman, URI class of 1950. The murals are whimsical cartoons that show students returning to the area at the Kingston (railroad) Station, a class reunion, URI commencement, a South County beach scene, students piled in a jalopy wearing letter sweaters and a marching band.

The University’s Senior Leadership Team reviewed the Advisory Committee’s recommendations and voted unanimously to accept all of them. Next steps will involve fundraising to accomplish the recommendations, including the cleaning and preservation of the existing murals. A new mural will be done as part of the major Memorial Union renovations slated to begin in 2022.

The University’s Senior Leadership Team’s recent action follows about six months of work by the eight-member Memorial Union Advisory Committee. Among the committee’s recommendations approved by the University leadership team are:

  • Existing murals should be uncovered for public display and best efforts should be made to preserve the murals during any future building upgrade.
  • Adjacent to the murals, the University should add necessary context about the artist’s contributions/services to the country, University and community.
  • Adjacent to the murals, the University should add necessary context regarding the original intent of the murals to depict life on campus at the time they were created.
  • The University should commission a new work of art to depict diverse university life as it is today, to be installed in the Memorial Union in similar size and impact to the existing murals.

URI’s Senior Leadership Team thanked the committee for its dedicated work on the issue, including its successful strategy to receive public input and consider the multi-disciplinary perspectives of the committee members, gather opinions from current students, alumni and community members through a survey, and gather historical research on the murals and Dr. Sherman.

It also appreciates the patience of the University community, including Dr. Sherman and his family and our alumni members, which allowed the University to conduct a thorough assessment of the issue and to hear the numerous perspectives on Dr. Sherman’s work.

The committee began its work in January 2021 to address the 1954 Memorial Union murals created by Dr. Sherman and to make recommendations to the University about their future. Through late winter and spring, the committee met online about a dozen times and worked to establish a process by which historical perspectives, public outreach, and solicitation of various opinions could be accomplished by a late spring deadline.

These meetings included historical and contextual presentations on the murals and on other art works in public situations (both nearby and nationally) that have generated controversy and the solutions found by other educational and historical institutions to resolve those controversies.

The committee conducted an email survey to gauge public opinion. A little more than 86,000 individuals received the survey, including alumni, students, faculty, and staff. It generated more than 200 responses.  The committee also held discussions with the Sherman family,  individual alumni, and the Student Senate, among others.

Every effort was made to hear and consider the various (and sometimes very different) reactions to the murals and to correct or clarify any misinformation on the murals or the process through which the committee was working. Considering all the input from these sources and other key examples of controversial or challenging public art works, the committee concluded that this was a unique opportunity to interpret the current murals, to support reflection of today’s diverse URI community, and to commission another, new expression of contemporary campus life.