Artist Sam Kerson created the colorful murals entitled “Vermont, The Underground Railroad” and “Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” in 1993 on two walls in a building at the private Vermont Law School, now called Vermont Law and Graduate School, in South Royalton. Years later, in 2020, the school said they would paint over it. But when Kerson objected, it said it would cover them with acoustic tiles. The school gave Kerson the option of removing the murals, but he said he couldn’t do so without damaging them.
When Kerson, who lives in Quebec, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Vermont, the school said in a lawsuit that “the depictions of African Americans some viewers find caricatured and offensive, and that the mural is a source of contention and distraction become.”
Kerson lost his trial in U.S. District Court in Vermont. He appealed and the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case on Friday.
Kerson’s attorney again argued that the artwork is protected by the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, which was enacted “to protect artists from alterations and destruction detrimental to their honor or reputation,” said Steven Hyman.
He said the covering of the artwork to prevent people from viewing it is an alteration and that Kerson has to “go through the humiliation and humiliation of getting a panel on his art.”
But the school’s attorney, Justin Barnard, argued that covering the artwork with a wooden frame that doesn’t touch the painting and is attached to the wall is not an amendment.
“Alteration means that something remains, it’s a modified form,” Barnard told the jurors. He also said that hiding the artwork is not destruction.
“There is a unique sense of harm when you destroy something and remove it from the face of the earth. We’re not talking about that here,” he said. “We are simply talking about the right of a private institution or a private individual to remove a work from the exhibition.”
When asked by the jury, Barnard said the school’s intention is to keep the wall up, at least for the rest of the artist’s life.