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The Benton Murals

Benton restoration photo

Restored with a 1998 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Benton murals originally appeared in the Indiana Hall at the 1933 Chicago World Exposition. They now grace several buildings on campus, including the new IU Cinema.

Print-Quality Photo

In 1933, Thomas Hart Benton completed his landmark mural cycle for the Indiana Hall at Chicago's "Century of Progress" World's Exposition. Even in an era distinguished by the work of such great muralists as Josť Orozco and Diego Rivera, Benton's Indiana Mural project stood out for its scale and its artistic impact. The artist's notoriety in the wake of the exhibition of the Indiana Murals -- depicting the social, economic and cultural history of the Hoosier state from mound building to the 1930s -- landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1934 as one of the leading figures among the so-called Regionalists.

Yet, with the closing of the Chicago Exposition, Benton's twenty-two panels disappeared from the public eye. In 1938, Indiana University President Herman B Wells tracked them down in a horse barn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Wells made their installation at IU a central feature in his campaign to expand and beautify the Bloomington campus in a manner suited to his vision of the school as an international center of learning.

Since 1941 the murals -- restored with a 1998 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts -- have been displayed in the IU Auditorium, the old University Theater (now the IU Cinema) and Woodburn Hall. They constitute one of the university's and the state's greatest artistic treasures. At the same time, they have served as the focus of continued controversy, dispute, and dialogue within the university community.

More about the Benton murals:

A timeline for the Benton murals:

1932 -- Thomas Hart Benton is commissioned to paint the murals to decorate the Indiana Hall at the "Century of Progress" exposition at the Chicago World's Fair. Benton signed a contract to paint a continuous mural, 12 feet high and about 250 feet long, depicting the "Social and Industrial History of Indiana."

1933 -- Gov. Paul McNutt dedicates the mural display on July 2. Critics were sharply divided on the murals. Some believed that the murals made Indiana's state exhibit the most artistic at the fair; others disliked Benton's style and subject matter. Benton himself described the murals as "A Dream Fulfilled."

1935 -- After being temporarily warehoused at the conclusion of the World's Fair, the murals are transferred to the state fairground in Indianapolis and largely forgotten.

1938 -- The new president of IU, Herman B Wells, begins work on the first major building project of his tenure, a music hall that came to be known as the IU Auditorium. He remembers the murals from his visit to the World's Fair. Wells contacts Gov. Clifford Townsend and IU obtains the murals for the price of shipping.

1940 -- Benton assists in the installation and retouching of the murals. Sixteen central panels are installed in the grand lobby of the Auditorium. Two panels with "business" themes are placed in Woodburn Hall, the new center of the Business School. Panels with "recreation" themes are placed in the University Theater behind the main auditorium.

1941 -- On March 22, the IU Auditorium holds its grand opening. On Dec. 9, the university holds "Indiana Mural Day." Benton attends and holds workshops.

1975 -- Thomas Hart Benton dies. He remained an active artist until his death.

1986-87 -- Concerned about the deterioration of the Woodburn and University Theater murals, including the frequently vandalized KKK image in the Woodburn mural, the university receives a National Endowment for the Arts grant and cleans and conserves the panels.

1997-98 -- In conjunction with the renovation of the IU Auditorium, the NEA awards IU a conservation grant for restoring the Benton murals there, declaring the Benton mural restoration to be the most important such project in the nation. IU raises matching funds for the project. The Getty Trust also is a primary sponsor of the effort.

2000 -- On Jan. 27, the IU Auditorium, with the restored murals, is rededicated.