The portraits of past heads of Pierson College that were temporarily removed from the dining hall ahead of a Halloween party last month will be restored to their original positions by the end of this week, accompanied by new student artwork, Head of Pierson College Stephen Davis announced in an email on Tuesday night.
Each year, the portraits are removed before Pierson’s annual Inferno dance and are reinstalled shortly after. But this year, Pierson opted to temporarily relocate the paintings to the college’s Fellows’ Lounge, using the routine removal of paintings from the dining hall to prompt discussion about the types of accomplishments and identities that should be honored in public art.
The new student artwork was created in the dining hall on Monday during a “Popeyes and Public Art Study Break” aimed at encouraging discussion about portraiture and the significance of art in public spaces.
“The point of all this was to create a blank space and to use the moment in which the space is blank in order to create a conversation about what it means to adorn our public spaces, what does it mean to create portraits, who do we honor and who does the honoring,” Davis said.
About 120 people — including Davis and Committee on Art in Public Spaces Chairman Samuel Messer ART ’82 — attended the event, which was held in the dining hall from 9:30 to 11 p.m. By the end of the night, many students had taped their own portraits and creations to the previously blank walls. Gia Reyes ’20 said that having the opportunity to create and hang her own artwork allowed her to think about the space in a new way.
In an email to the News on Tuesday, Yale College Dean Marvin Chun said that while he is very excited by the conversations about how public art around campus can reflect Yale’s mission, he is also committed to historical preservation.
“In the case of portraits on display in the residential colleges, I think it’s important to keep them hanging, both for preserving the colleges’ histories and for honoring the intentions of alumni, fellows and friends who generously commissioned these portraits,” Chun said. “The two goals of reflecting Yale’s community today and honoring its past are not mutually exclusive.”
Both Messer and Davis emphasized that relocating the paintings was never about removal or erasure. Instead, Davis said, it is about creating an “educative opportunity” for those in Pierson to think about and discuss how to adorn public spaces while honoring the past and the present.
Davis also said that the decision not to immediately rehang the portraits as in years past was the product of lengthy conversations with Pierson fellows, the Pierson College Council and students starting in the spring of 2017.
Dominic Schnabel ’19, a member of the Pierson College Council and a peer liaison for the Office of LGBTQ Resources who helped plan Inferno, said Davis approached him and other peer liaisons this fall to discuss how to approach concerns about representation in public art. Schnabel, who also helped organize Monday’s study break, said that while it was initially jarring to see the blank walls, he recognized that the event was an important way to facilitate conversations about “what [art] we wish to define the space.”
Marissa Sanghvi ’20 said this event challenged her to re-evaluate whether portraits of past heads of college alone should hang on the walls of the Pierson dining hall.
The representation of those who have been crucial figures in the Pierson community but who might not otherwise be depicted in typical academic portraiture was an important theme in Monday’s discussion.
“What does it mean to honor people whose labor is visible, and what does it mean to honor people whose labor is not visible?” Davis asked at the event.
Peggy Barnes, who retired last year after working in the Pierson dining hall for nearly 30 years, was one such integral force within the college. A student portrait of Barnes was taped over the fireplace in the middle of the dining hall last night. “It was pretty cool to see that representation manifested,” Schnabel said.
Messer said he hopes the Pierson study break encouraged not only a sociopolitical discussion about the impacts of portraiture but also a conversation about visual representation.
Davis said he hopes the conversations will lead to a proposal concerning public art on campus for Chun and the Committee on Art in Public Spaces that “both honors the past and somehow captures who we are as a community in its fullness.”
“I believe that the efforts of Head of College Stephen Davis and the group are not only welcome but integral to creating the kind of supportive milieu in which all students can feel a sense of belonging,” said Pierson Resident Fellow Miraj Desai. “I applaud and support this initiative. Art speaks.”
Pierson College is located at 261 Park St.
Chloe Glass | firstname.lastname@example.org