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Vermont Law School Sued for Removing Artist’s Murals

After sunset on a snowy winter evening the town lights up.
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on December 03, 2020 3:56 PM

In 1993, artist Samuel Kerson painted Vermont, The Underground Railroad and Vermont and the Fugitive Slave at Chase Hall in Vermont Law School. The paintings celebrate the role Vermont played in helping escaped slaves in the years before the civil war.

According to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont, however, the law school intends to replace the murals with tile after several students complained that the paintings were offensive. The lawsuit seeks to prevent the school from doing so under the Visual Artist Rights Act (VARA).

Made Some Students Uncomfortable

According to Valley News, students understand that the mural is a well-intentioned celebration of the Underground Railroad. Nevertheless, according to Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski, VLS students on the law school's diversity committee who helped initiate the campaign to have the murals removed, the murals depict "the white savior complex," and over-exaggerate its Black characters similar to other "anti-black coon caricatures."

Early in 2020, the school's board agreed to "paint over" the murals. The school did not initially inform Kerson, who learned of it from a student who wanted Kerson to join in the demand to take down the artwork. In August 2020, the school gave Kerson 90 days to remove the murals. However, after an inspection, Kerson determined that he could not remove the murals without destroying them in the process. The school and Kerson have since been unable to find a resolution.

You can view the mural in question on Kerson's website.

Rights Under VARA

Congress created the Visual Artist Rights Act in 1990 to protect works of visual art from destruction and mutilation without the artist's consent. However, several exceptions and exclusions can apply. Under VARA, an artist can sue to enjoin a building owner from removing or mutilating artwork unless, among other things, the artist either failed to remove the work or to pay for its removal within 90 days after receiving notice.

Since Kerson claims he cannot remove the mural without destroying it, he seeks to prohibit the school from covering it up. If they do paint over the murals, he is asking for at least $150,000 in compensation per mural.

Related Resource

2nd Circuit Upholds NYC Graffiti Landmark as Protected Art (FindLaw's U.S. Second Circuit)

Burning Man's La Contessa Is Not Visual Art Under VARA (FindLaw's U.S. Ninth Circuit)

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