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Vandalism and Art

Responding to White Supremacy: Public Images and Legacies at Yale University

Carol Snow and Alan J. Dworsky

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1Founded in 1701, Yale University ranks among the original nine colleges established before the American Revolution. It was named for Elihu Yale, who donated money, books, and a portrait of King George I to the college in 1718. Among the legacies of Yale and other early American universities, is the interconnected history of trade, politics, and higher education. Slavery, both native and African, is an undeniable part of that history. Indeed, early American academies sought to educate people they considered “savages” while at the same time exploiting them for economic advantage to the point of destruction of native nations. Racism remains a volatile issue across university campuses to this day.

2Public images on university campuses have emerged as flashpoints in ongoing dialogues on race in America. Public art at Yale ranges from traditional bronze historic statuary to modern abstractions in a range of materials. According to the Yale public art web site, ‘Yale’s commitment to art as a public trust has a compelling history that reflects America’s heritage and notes the shifting tides in our cultural values.’[1] Yet the overwhelming preponderance of images of white men along with insensitive and inappropriate imagery across the university highlights the paucity of and need for art representing diversity on campus. A case in point, a vandalized stained glass window, is the topic of this paper.

Fig.1 Stained Glass window, Calhoun College, Yale, 1933

Fig.1 Stained Glass window, Calhoun College, Yale, 1933

Studio of Nicola D'Ascenzo, commissionned by John Russell Pope, Architect

Credits: Yale University

3As brief background, in 1919 Yale University hired John Russell Pope, architect and a central figure in the City Beautiful movement. Pope developed a plan for the city of New Haven that relocated the poor to the periphery of the city and developed a master plan for Yale. In 1933 Pope designed Calhoun College, one of the original eight residential colleges at Yale, and commissioned the studio of Nicola D’Ascenzo in Philadelphia to create stained glass windows representing Calhoun and scenes of the south. [2] Built in the Neo-Gothic style, Calhoun College was named after John C. Calhoun (Yale, 1804), among the most illustrious statesmen to graduate from Yale and vice president to US Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Calhoun, who died before the Civil War, was from South Carolina and an outspoken proponent of slavery.

4For decades Calhoun’s white supremacist beliefs and pro-slavery positions led to campus protests and demands that the residential college name be changed. In April 2016 the university voted to keep the Calhoun name and tensions rose again. During preparations for Staff Appreciation Day in June 2016, a Calhoun College employee decided he had had enough of historic, racist images and smashed the stained glass window depicting slaves harvesting cotton. After the incident he admitted it was wrong, but stated, ‘No employee should be subject to coming to work and seeing slave portraits on a daily basis.’ [3]

Fig.2 Vandalized stained glass window

Fig.2 Vandalized stained glass window

‘No employee should be subject to coming to work and seeing slave portraits on a daily basis.’

Credits: Yale University

5Sans rire…The university and New Haven communities have viewed the highly publicized act as alternately an act of vandalism and a celebrated act of political protest. The university administration responded with sincere, albeit somewhat confused, public and policy reactions: the employee was initially arrested and fired, but after some public outcry, charges were dropped and he was reinstated at Yale. He went on to become a local symbol for the Black Lives Matter movement [4] and “New Havener of the Year.” [5]

6In August 2016 Yale President Peter Salovey formed the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. The committee worked quickly and recommended the college name be changed to put an end to decades of conflict. In February 2017 President Salovey announced that Calhoun College will be renamed after computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper (PhD Yale 1934). [6]

7While tensions had been rising in the spring of 2016, and prior to the Calhoun window being smashed, President Salovey had tasked a newly formed Committee on Art in Public Spaces to advise him on ways to better represent the diversity of the Yale community through the art and other symbolic representations found around campus. This includes outdoor art as well as works located in public and communal areas such as dining halls, libraries, and spaces used for entertainment and lectures. [7]

8The Committee on Art in Public Spaces (CAPS) will be launching a crowdsourcing campaign to engage the community to play an active role in identifying potentially offensive images and artworks in public spaces at Yale. New works of art will be commissioned for Hopper College. Other new installations are being reviewed. Plans are underway to commission a work of art to be created by a Native American artist. In the year since the vandalism of the stained glass window occurred, CAPS has had three different chairpersons and has found writing a mission statement outlining principles and policies to be a difficult challenge. [8]

9How should conservators get involved in efforts to right the wrongs of the past regarding diversity, or lack thereof, while at the same time balancing goals not to “white wash” history? What is the role of the conservator when responding to such artifacts or works of art that are intentionally damaged in a climate of social conflict and political upheaval? Can conservation treatment decisions themselves be interpreted as political or social statements? Can conservators contribute to changing the direction of public art going forward? How should the opinions of stakeholders be weighed when the community’s views vary so widely on whether an act of vandalism has occurred?

10Many institutions are grappling with similar political issues that seem to invite vandalism rather than prevent it. As a member of the Committee on Art in Public Spaces, the author will present philosophical, ethical, contextual, and practical considerations in approaches to art in public spaces on a university campus, where various forms of vandalism are part of political discourse or even works of art themselves. An open dialogue will facilitate ways to cope, literally from the ground up, with such complex issues.

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Bibliography

[1] Reynolds, Jock. Statement from the director of the Yale Art Gallery. http://visitorcenter.yale.edu/tours/public-art-yale/statement-director-yale-art-gallery.

[2] Personal communication with John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts, Yale University Art Gallery, May 3, 2017.

[3] Greenberg, Zoe. July 12, 2016. Yale drops case against worker who smashed window depicting slaves, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/nyregion/yale-worker-john-c-calhoun-window-slaves.html?emc=eta1&_r=0.

[4] Chen Michelle. July 25, 2016, A worker broke a window at Yale and shed light on history, The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/article/a-worker-broke-a-window-at-yale-and-shed-light-on-history/.

[5] Bass, Paul. December 23, 2016, New Havener of the year, New Haven Independent, http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/new_havener_of_the_year1/.

[6] Salovey, Peter. February 11, 2017, Decision on the name of Calhoun College, https://messages.yale.edu/messages/University/univmsgs/detail/149000.

[7] Gonzalez, Juan and Amy Goodman. July 15, 2016, Exclusive: Meet Yale Dishwasher Corey Menafee, Who Smashed Racist Stained-Glass Window,

https://www.democracynow.org/2016/7/15/exclusive_meet_yale_dishwasher_corey_menafee.

[8] http://president.yale.edu/advisory-groups/presidents-committees/committee-art-public-spaces.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig.1 Stained Glass window, Calhoun College, Yale, 1933
Caption Studio of Nicola D'Ascenzo, commissionned by John Russell Pope, Architect
Credits Credits: Yale University
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5682/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 352k
Title Fig.2 Vandalized stained glass window
Caption ‘No employee should be subject to coming to work and seeing slave portraits on a daily basis.’
Credits Credits: Yale University
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5682/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 731k
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References

Electronic reference

Carol Snow and Alan J. Dworsky, « Responding to White Supremacy: Public Images and Legacies at Yale University », CeROArt [Online], HS | 2018, Online since 09 December 2018, connection on 20 May 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/5682

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About the authors

Carol Snow

Deputy Chief Conservator Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, USA carol.snow@yale.edu

Alan J. Dworsky

Senior Conservator of Objects

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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