When construction on the salmon-colored Literature, Science and the Arts Building on State Street is finished next year, 37 of the 39 historic bas reliefs by Michigan sculptor Marshall Fredericks will return to its faAade.
Two will not.
Those two works of art – “Dream of the Young Man” and “Dream of the Young Girl” – have spurred controversy on campus for more than 30 years. Opponents have argued that the works are sexist because they portray finding a suitable husband as a woman’s central preoccupation.
“Dream of the Young Man” depicts a boy dreaming about a ship with wind-filled sails. “Dream of the Young Girl” shows a muscular man flanked by oxen taking the hand of a woman.
“The visual representation doesn’t seem to hold the same respect for women as it does men,” said Fran Blouin, director of the Bentley Historical Library on North Campus.
The reliefs were placed on the LSA Building when it was built in 1948. For years, the University stood by its position that the works are an important part of history and should not be removed just because they are no longer politically correct.
But just before renovations began on the LSA Building in 2003, the Office of the Provost – headed by then-Provost Paul Courant – decided to permanently move the works to the Bentley, where fewer students are likely to see them.
Some say the decision is an inappropriate attempt to forget the past.
“I don’t think it’s ever really a positive thing to hide art because of something like this,” said LSA sophomore Marah Hehemann, who is majoring in art history. “Keeping it at the University but putting it in a different place seems strange.”
Gary Krenz, special counsel to University President Mary Sue Coleman, disagreed.
He said he does not view the move as an attempt to cover up history because the reliefs are not being removed but only relocated.
University administrators argue that the Bentley, which holds most of the University’s historical records, is an appropriate place to house the reliefs because it places them in a historical context.
“My own general view about anachronistic statements of value is that you ought to use them as opportunities to teach,” Courant said. “When possible, you’d like to have a display that gives people opportunities to reflect on what the world was like when the art was created.”
The President’s Advisory Commission on Women’s Issues, formed in 1989 to advise the University president on how to increase gender equality, strongly recommended moving the works.
“The vision that the bas reliefs convey is better suited to a historical context than as a representation of the dreams we hold for Michigan’s men and women students in the 21st century,” commission chair Carol Hollenshead wrote in a 2003 letter to University President Mary Sue Coleman.
The controversy spurred Art History Prof. Margaret Root to teach a course on the bas reliefs called Art on Trial: Public Art and Political Controversy. The class used the “Dream” reliefs as a springboard into the study of other controversial art.
“I was adamant that they should not be removed,” Root said. “In these United States, public art should make people think,” she added.
After the reliefs were taken down in 2003, Root proposed a reinstallation event that would correspond with her offering the course again in the fall of 2006. LSA administrators declined her offer.
Root said she was not informed of the decision to not replace the works of art until just a few months ago.
“When it is simply removed – especially without transparent deliberative process – we lose something very important,” she said.
Courant said the move was not a result of lobbying or pressure but of general campus discontent.
“We never felt any pressure from donors, regents, faculty or students to either keep them up or take them down,” Courant said. “From time to time, people would say, ‘Gee, it sure was different back in 1948.’ No one ever said, ‘We’re not going to write you a check if you do this.'”
Maureen Hartford, former vice president of university affairs, who is now president of Meredith College in North Carolina, said the reliefs should remain on the faAade of the building. Hartford said the sculptures remind students how far women have come at the University, recalling a time when women were not allowed in the Michigan Union and when admitting women was first tried as an “experiment.”
“A current Michigan woman has a very different experience at the University than her predecessors had 100 years ago,” Hartford said. “That is what U of M should be celebrating.”