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Joanna Davis
IU Art Museum

Jennifer Piurek
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, July 27, 2009

IU Art Museum opens doors to conservation of famed Thomas Benton murals

July 27, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana University Art Museum is offering a glimpse into the intricate world of painting conservation. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from now through the end of September, the public is invited to observe the ongoing conservation of two panels from Thomas Hart Benton's famous Indiana murals at the IU Art Museum's painting conservation laboratory.

Benton restoration photo

The public is invited to observe the ongoing conservation of two panels from Thomas Hart Benton's famous Indiana murals at the IU Art Museum's painting conservation laboratory.

Print-Quality Photo

The murals were originally created for the Indiana Hall at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 22 panels that stretched 250 feet, encircling the exposition. When the Century of Progress Exposition closed, Benton's panels were stored in a horse barn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Herman B Wells, early in his tenure as IU president, arranged for the state to give the murals to IU in 1940.

Today, 16 of the panels are in the lobby of the IU Auditorium, two are in Woodburn Hall and four were in the old University Theatre building, which is currently under construction (the two panels currently being restored come from the theater building).

Last summer, an April conference titled "Thomas Hart Benton's Indiana Murals at 75: Public Art and the Public University" led attendees through lectures, guided tours and discussions of the Benton murals and art and architecture on the IU campus.

The conservation of the Benton mural panels is an example of IU's ongoing commitment to preserving its remarkable collection of art across the campus, said Margaret Contompasis, the IU Art Museum's Gayl W. and Beverly Doster Conservator of Painting. Working with Contompasis on the current conservation project are Marty Radecki, former head of conservation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and Mike Ruzga from Fine Arts Conservation in Cincinnati.

"We have a unique opportunity to share with the public our ongoing efforts to preserve one of our nation's greatest works of art," Contompasis said. She added that the "inherent vice" in the murals is that while Benton spoke a lot about reviving old painting techniques, he didn't record the specifics of how he created his paints. "He was really talking about the research preparation and the intellectual work, not the actual technique of how to make paint and apply it," she said.

Samples of the paint have been analyzed in labs and led to ongoing debates about whether Benton used egg yolk or egg white to make tempera paints. Whatever the exact chemical breakdown, said Contompasis, the older the murals get, the more the paint pulls the mural from the wall, curling up like a sail. "Since we can't remove the egg coating, the next best thing we're doing is to stabilize the paint (using a water-based adhesive). We're going through a process where we basically relax the paint, unroll it and then reattach it to the wall."

Benton Conservation

Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975), "Indiana Puts Her Trust in Thought," 1933. From the Indiana Murals (Cultural Panel 11).Tempera on canvas on panel.

Print-Quality Photo

Joanna Davis, manager of external relations for the IU Art Museum, said visitors often ask about conservation of paintings and how treatments are performed. "We felt that this project would offer the public an excellent opportunity to witness conservation in progress," she said. "It's a behind-the-scenes glimpse that isn't always available."

Benton (1889-1975) was a Missouri native who studied art in Paris and New York. When Indiana officials commissioned him to produce the murals, he delved into study of the state's history and traveled across Indiana for months to gain a sense of Indiana's people and geography.

"History was not a scholarly study for me but a drama," wrote Benton, who was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1934. "I saw it not as a succession of events but as a continuous flow of action having its climax in my own immediate experience."

Benton is perhaps best known at IU for his controversial mural, "Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press," which includes an image of robed Ku Klux Klansmen burning a cross alongside an interracial hospital tableau in what has been interpreted as a tribute to the newspapers that brought down the hate group. While he was often critiqued for his "vulgar" style and focus on everyday life, Benton insisted on presenting both the good and bad elements of Hoosier history.

Earlier this year, conservators from the Indianapolis Museum of Art were contracted to stabilize areas of flaking paint in preparation for the move of the panels to the IU Art Museum. IU also hired a Chicago firm (Methods & Materials, which specializes in moving large works of art) to remove the murals from the theater walls and bring them to the IU Art Museum's conservation laboratory.

The IU Art Museum's conservation lab will be open to the public from 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, from now through the end of September. Groups of four or more can call 812-855-1926 to make special arrangements.

The conservation lab is located on the second floor of the IU Art Museum near the elevator. A sign is located on the door and visitors are encouraged to knock upon arrival.

About the Indiana University Art Museum
Since its establishment in 1941, the Indiana University Art Museum has grown from a small university teaching collection into one of the foremost university art museums in the country. Today, the IU Art Museum's internationally acclaimed collections, ranging from ancient gold jewelry and African masks to paintings by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, include more than 40,000 objects representing nearly every art-producing culture throughout history. The IU Art Museum is located on Seventh Street in the heart of the Bloomington campus. Galleries are open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Angles Café and Gift Shop is open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Galleries are closed on Mondays and major holidays. The museum and all exhibitions and programs are free and open to the public.