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FIRE, NCAC Disappointed with UW-Stout’s New Plan for Controversial Paintings

The University of Wisconsin–Stout’s (UW-Stout's) chancellor has changed his mind about relegating two historical paintings to storage amid worries they reinforce stereotypes of Native Americans and could have “a harmful effect on … students and other viewers.” But the new plan for the paintings—moving them to new locations where they can be viewed in a “controlled” manner, in one case by appointment only—isn’t much better.

In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) Friday, UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer walked back his original plan to entirely remove the paintings—two recently restored, mid-1930s Cal Peters artworks, “Perrault’s Trading Fort” and “French Trappers on the Red Cedar”—over concerns voiced by some students, faculty, and the school’s Diversity Leadership Team that they reinforced negative stereotypes of the First Nations people.

The announcement came just hours after FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) asked Meyer in a joint letter to reconsider.

Meyer described the new plan to WPR as a strategic business decision, one designed to attract more Native American students to UW-Stout:

There’s a segment of Native American students, that when they look at the art, to them it symbolizes an era of their history where land and possessions were taken away from them, and they feel bad when they look at them.

But according to NCAC’s Svetlana Mintcheva, that business-minded justification of sheltering students from “feel-bad moments” is “a kind of thinking which is absolutely alien to a tradition of academic exploration and inquiry.”

“Academia is not It doesn’t sell feel-good products,” Mintcheva told FIRE. “It’s asking students to explore topics. To look into history. To confront things that are not always comfortable.”

“How do you lead a university when your primary goal is to make your customers, in this context, feel good?”

FIRE agrees.

While Meyer’s solution avoids totally censoring the paintings, the decision to cloister them fails to capitalize on the educational value of the artwork—a request that was at the core of FIRE and NCAC’s letter to the university.

In that letter, we suggested a win-win option for UW-Stout, which would have furthered the institution’s interest in fostering inclusion while avoiding censorship. FIRE and NCAC suggested the school leave the paintings on display in their original location with additional signage providing historical context. They could then add various interpretations of the paintings and additional artwork that increases the diversity of voices included in the space.

As NCAC and FIRE wrote in our letter, dialogue is critical to arriving at the kind of truly racially inclusive campus the university says it wants to achieve:

Popular attitudes held by Americans in the 1930s differ from contemporary views—and, accordingly, are of historical significance. Conversations about history are not just conversations about what happened; they are also conversations about how we talk about what happened. Cal Peters’ work invites reflection on the politics of historical memory and presents a valuable educational opportunity. Substantive dialogue across the divides of racial misapprehension, anxiety, and pain will demand courage, imagination, dedication and perseverance. Putting Cal Peters’ 1930s paintings in a closet ends the conversation prematurely and to the detriment of current and future students and faculty.

UW-Stout’s insistence on tightly controlling access to both the paintings and the narrative surrounding them means fewer people will see the works and, in turn, fewer discussions will be had.

In short, UW-Stout is foregoing an opportunity to provide students the one and only product it should be pushing: a learning experience.

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