The paintings removed from the walls of Pierson College dining hall in preparation for the annual Pierson Inferno Halloween party — which include the images of former heads of college — will not be remounted, Pierson Head of College Stephen Davis announced in an email to students last Wednesday. Davis wrote that the decision was designed to “prompt conversation on what it means to create common spaces where everyone has a sense of belonging and ownership.”
The initiative comes amid wider conversations about how the abundance of images of white men around campus affect Yale’s inclusivity. During a “Popeyes and Public Art Study Break” on Monday night, Pierson students will gather with Sam Messer ART ’82, associate dean at the Yale School of Art and chair of the Committee on Art in Public Spaces, to discuss what kinds of values, identities and accomplishments are important to honor in public art. During the event, students will also paint portraits of each other that will temporarily hang in the dining hall. For the time being, Davis said, the portraits of former heads of college will be mounted in the Pierson Fellows’ Lounge, and the college will soon create plaques describing the historical context of each portrait.
“There is a long sustained, ongoing, open constructive discussion going on about the role of public art and the kind of art that we want displayed around campus, and with respect to portraiture there have been long-standing concerns among students that the portraits are not diverse enough,” Yale College Dean Marvin Chun told the News. “It is a completely legitimate discussion of what can we do to diversify our portraiture and public art in general, who the artists are and what they’re representing, and so on.”
Chun emphasized that the initial removal of the paintings was prompted by Pierson Inferno and not the ongoing discussions surrounding diversity on campus. Still, he said, Davis has had many conversations with students and administrators regarding paintings in Pierson before the Wednesday announcement.
“That distinction is important, because there is concern about removal of public art,” Chun explained. “[Head Davis] is using this opportunity to continue the discussions he’s already having.”
According to Davis’ email, the Pierson College Council, Pierson Student Activity Committee and the Pierson fellows were consulted before the decision.
Usha Rungoo GRD ’18, a resident Pierson fellow, said that she, as a woman of color, has “long been uncomfortable” entering common spaces at Yale filled mostly with the portraits of white men and is glad that Davis has begun a conversation about diversifying public art. She added that she appreciates that the college community has opened a dialogue about the significance of traditionally underrepresented Pierson affiliates.
Rungoo said she is also glad that the conversation is “intentionally democratic and inclusive” to encourage everyone in the community to contribute, noting, for example, that Monday’s event will be held in the dining hall, where students, fellows and staff are welcome.
Undergraduate students consulted on the announcement expressed similar approval.
“Dr. Davis has been working on this for a while, but he reached out to loop us in a few weeks ago,” said Katherine Hong ’19, the president of the Pierson College Council. “PCC is excited to have this conversation because we strive to make Pierson a home for everyone.”
Hong told the New that the reaction to the announcement has been positive overall, adding that people are especially interested in creating their own art to be displayed in the dining hall on Monday evening.
Still, other Piersonites expressed hope that the discussion about art in Pierson does not go too far and lead to a permanent removal of the dining hall portraits.
“Most of the paintings are of white men, but removing the paintings just because of their race kind of seems like historical erasure to me,” said Kelsang Dolma ’19. “Even though it’s sad that there isn’t much diversity in the paintings, these men were significant to Pierson history in some way.”
Still, Dolma added, she still likes the idea of having new paintings displayed in other spaces in Pierson, such as the common room or buttery.
Pierson College is named for Abraham Pierson, a Christian pastor.
Britton O’Daly | firstname.lastname@example.org