Create a Campus Mural Program for Students

By Dean Curran

It is no secret that the building styles on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus draw mixed reactions from viewers. Many of the buildings constructed between the 1950s-1970s were designed in the modernist style. Where some see artistic design, others see cold, ugly buildings. The old saying that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is certainly true. The look of a college campus is also for the most part inconsequential to a successful college experience. But in the winter 2009 edition of “UMass Amherst Magazine” alumnus Arthur Gordon (Class of ‘59) sent a letter to the editor with a compelling proposal. “Regarding the buildings, the grey monstrosities- how about murals on all of them?” he wrote. “Have a worldwide contest to place durable weatherproof vandal-resistant, beautiful artwork. As a sociology major, I think this would enliven the UMass culture forever.” Gordon’s letter was titled “Concrete Canvases.” No matter what your opinion of the buildings’ architecture may be, murals would be an obvious improvement to campus.

I would like to take this idea a step further. Instead of having a worldwide competition, students would submit their work for consideration by a University approved committee. Each year, student art would be accepted and reproduced as full-sized murals on exterior walls prime for decoration. Teams of chosen students would also be trained in reproducing and applying the artwork to buildings. These internships would earn eligible students credit towards graduation.

This program would be extraordinarily beneficial both for students and UMass Amherst. In recent years, many college graduates have been struggling to find work. The University has stressed the importance of student preparedness for the job market, especially through experience in a student’s chosen field. Isenberg School of Management Dean Mark Fuller for example, has responded by pushing for internships that improve student readiness for graduation. These measures should also be applied to the art world, where recent graduates have an especially hard time finding jobs in their field. The “Concrete Canvasses” program would be great for any resume or portfolio, helping students find opportunities for success despite an unfavorable economic environment. It would also mean a lot to young artists to know that their work would be seen by countless people to see throughout the years. Even students with no involvement in the project would experience its benefits. Simply viewing the murals in passing each day would foster creativity and be an inspirational backdrop for our campus community.

UMass would benefit from the program because it would provide relatively inexpensive campus beautification and a great public relations bragging point for rankings, fundraising, and admissions. Since students would be working for academic credit, cost would consist mainly of supplies and instruction. At a time when the University is undergoing one of its biggest building booms since the 1960s, this program would be the proverbial icing on the cake in its campus overhaul. It would be a cheap but worthwhile investment in both students’ and the school’s reputation. When Anna Schuleit’s mural “Just a Rumor” was placed on the back of the Fine Arts Center, it was showcased on the homepage of the UMass website. This is a step in the right direction, but the piece was created by a commissioned non-student and will be removed sometime this winter. UMass could gain a lot more by recruiting its own alumni to create public art.

Murals would also emphasize the beauty that is often lost in the bland coloration of some of our campus structures. The large concrete slabs of the Fine Arts Center and Herter Hall would especially benefit from colorful and eye catching designs. So long as the art is accessible and does not propagate any socio-political message, it would enrich the campus landscape. A UMass Amherst mural program would bring students, faculty, and alumni together around the common goal of promoting student talent and an inspiring learning environment.

Dean Curran is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]