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Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Benton Murals conference to explore public art on the university campus

April 15, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Thomas Hart Benton's Indiana murals have provoked strong public responses for 75 years, ever since the artist created them for the Indiana Hall at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.

A conference this month at Indiana University Bloomington, where the murals have been displayed since 1940, will examine the artistic and cultural impact of the murals and their role as public art on a public university campus.

The April 25-26 conference, "Thomas Hart Benton's Indiana Murals at 75: Public Art and the Public University," is free and open to the public. It will include discussions, lectures and guided tours of the Benton murals and campus art and architecture.

"Benton's Indiana murals are a constant reminder that Indiana University is an institution that is closely linked to the history and culture of the state," said Karen Hanson, the IU Bloomington provost and executive vice president. "Seventy-five years after they were created, the murals continue to function as essential public art, enriching the present, even as they help us to reflect on our past."

Conference discussions will take place in Woodburn Hall 100, where Benton's controversial mural "Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press" is displayed. Discussions will address the history of the murals, controversy about race, the role of university campuses in public debate, and other topics. Panelists will include faculty members from IU, Columbia University, the University of North Carolina and the University of Illinois-Chicago and museum curators from Indiana, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

Erika Doss, professor and department chair of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, will give a keynote address at 1:30 p.m. April 26 on "Action, Agency, Affect: Thomas Hart Benton's Hoosier History." A complete conference schedule can be seen at

A limited number of spaces are available for a complimentary lunch on Saturday. To reserve a lunch, see the registration form at Sponsors of the conference include: the College Arts and Humanities Institute (CAHI), the American Studies Program, the Office of the Provost, Indiana University Art Museum, Indiana University Foundation, the IU Auditorium and the Efroymson Fund.

In addition to the conference, the anniversary is being marked by:

  • Special exhibits on Benton, other regionalist artists and related topics at the IU Art Museum, the Lilly Library and the Monroe County History Center in Bloomington and at galleries in Indianapolis and elsewhere.
  • A reprinting of the Indiana University Press book Thomas Hart Benton and the Indiana Murals by Kathleen A. Foster, Nanette Esseck Brewer and Margaret Contompasis.

Eric Sandweiss, an IU associate professor of history, editor of the Indiana Magazine of History and a member of the conference program committee, said Benton was a leading light among American regionalist artists.

"He was known as a populist, but his idea of a documentary art rooted in a regional tradition transcended politics," he said.

Thomas Hart 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 threw himself into the project, studying history and traveling across the state to get a sense of Indiana's people and geography. "History was not a scholarly study for me but a drama," Benton wrote. "I saw it not as a succession of events but as a continuous flow of action having its climax in my own immediate experience."

Working with remarkable speed, Benton produced 22 large panels covering themes in Indiana history from the time of the Mound Builders to the early 1900s. The entire mural stretched for 250 feet, encircling the Indiana hall at the Century of Progress Exposition. The work gained widespread attention and helped boost Benton's reputation as a leading American artist. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1934.

Criticized for his "vulgar" style and his focus on everyday life, Benton insisted on presenting the bad with the good in Hoosier history. Working less than a decade after the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful political force in Indiana, he included a scene of robed Klansmen burning a cross, alongside an interracial hospital tableau and what has been seen as a tribute to the newspapers that brought down the Klan. In recent years, the university has debated whether that image is appropriate in a room where students must attend classes.

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 Indiana University. Sixteen of the panels are in the lobby of the IU Auditorium, two are in Woodburn Hall and four are in the old University Theatre.