The stucco wall on the west side of the Kappa Sigma fraternity house is, to be blunt, ugly.
But for Penn professor Amy Hillier, this wall is a blank canvas, "begging" for what is fast becoming a hallmark of Philadelphia's neighborhood and downtown revitalization: the mural.
But Hillier doesn't want just any mural greeting students on Locust Walk; she wants one honoring W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the most renowned black scholars of the late 19th and early 20th century. Du Bois penned his famous treatise on racial inequality in America, The Philadelphia Negro, while on a fellowship at Penn.
Only one thing stands in the way of Hillier's vision - Penn doesn't do murals. The University has never allowed a mural on a campus building.
So when Hillier presented her idea to University Architect David Hollenberg, she was expecting to "run into a wall."
To her surprise, his response wasn't no, but it wasn't yes, either.
Hollenberg, who took the job at the start of the semester, said the University chose to "stay away from" the issue in the past.
He didn't know of a precise reason why Penn has no murals. But handing over limited space to just one artist might set a dangerous precedent.
If the University has just one or two spaces, Hollenberg asked, "how would we decide" who gets to paint a mural?
"Would it be right if it was the first person who walked in?"
There are few University buildings like the Kappa Sigma house with exposed walls, the result of tearing down an adjacent building.
Murals on similar blank walls have been successful in improving rundown areas in Philadelphia, Hollenberg said. But this is "not necessarily the case at Penn," he added, since the University does not need the same kind of revitalization.
Penn might not need murals, but Jane Golden, director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, said in an e-mail interview that the surrounding community certainly wants them.
Golden said "many requests from students, professors and from community members" were made in the past, none of which Penn embraced.
The University is "open to change," though, Hollenberg said, and both Hollenberg and Hillier anticipate a number of conversations before any decision is made.
The University is no stranger to in-your-face public art displays, however. Just last year, the Plateau installation on 40th Street sparked debate about the University's aesthetic taste.
But Hillier says her proposal is not only about adding new art to the campus. It pays tribute to Du Bois, whom she says Penn has yet to fully honor.
Although Penn named one of its 12 college houses after Du Bois, this is "not something people visiting campus are going to notice," Hillier said.
A mural is "bold," she said, and Du Bois, who was "larger than life, deserves a larger than life tribute."
Du Bois College House Faculty Master Rev. William Gipson agreed that Penn should "take advantage of every opportunity to raise the profile of [Du Bois's] relationship to our University."
Gipson added, though, that a more fitting tribute would be to strengthen University programs in sociology and other studies Du Bois championed.
"We're very proud at W.E.B. Du Bois College House to bear his name, and we like to believe we carry on his spirit in our academic endeavors," said Gipson, who is also the University chaplain.
The party most immediately affected by any decision to paint a mural - the brothers of Kappa Sigma - say they are open to the idea, according to fraternity President and Wharton senior Dan Spelman.
Any decision about a mural would have to go through the national Kappa Sigma office, which holds the lease to the building. Spelman said, however, that he doubts they would reject it.
Until the University makes its final decision, Hillier said she's prepared for either response.
Hillier said she trusts that the University is not just stalling, but she's prepared to mobilize support "to show people care."Comments powered by Disqus
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