After an eye-opening two-month run at the University of Tennessee’s Downtown Gallery , the once-controversial Greenwood Mural , which depicts Tennessee’s musical roots in old time, gospel, blues, and jazz, will have a long-term home at the Knoxville Museum of Art .
Someday the strange period from 1970 to 2014 will be the subject of wonder for docents and museum patrons. Marion Greenwood’s sprawling canvas, known by various names, including “The History of Tennessee” (the artist’s original title) and “The Singing Mural,” began its life as an extraordinary thing. The 28-foot-long oil-on-linen painting was, to begin with, UT’s most prominent art commission. Greenwood (1909-1970), a New York artist who had lived and studied in Mexico, where she worked with the legendary Diego Rivera, came here in 1954, to live in Fort Sanders for a year, teach, and create this mural reflecting the state’s dynamic musical heritage.
For 16 years it hung in a place of honor in UT’s ballroom, until one chaotic weekend during student rioting in May 1970, when it was vandalized. Though no one claimed responsibility, the possibility that it was a reaction to the portrayal of one of its characters as a black slave was, to the thinking of the university bureaucracy, reason enough to discreetly cover it with permanent paneling. For more than 40 years the Greenwood was only rarely seen, the subject of rumor and speculation until it went on display for two months at the Downtown Gallery, to general acclaim.
The University Center’s looming demolition presented a dilemma of what to do with the Greenwood Mural. One public forum drew no consensus except for the agreement that a student center was probably not the place for it and that it would work better in a museum, where it could be displayed and discussed in the complicated context of its history. There was concern that UT’s McClung Museum lacked a space big enough to display it properly. The Knoxville Museum of Art has signed an agreement to take custody of the painting, for a period of five years, renewable, to hang in its permanent exhibit celebrating the history of art in East Tennessee, Higher Grounds .
“The short end of that gallery is just long enough for the painting,” says KMA director David Butler. He’d heard of the painting for years and thought of it as a “hot potato,” but, having seen it, is impressed. KMA’s display will “concentrate on its artistic merits” but also acknowledge the controversy and its association with the ongoing perceptions of race in America.
“It’s part of Knoxville’s history and our collective history as a country,” he says. “There’s all kinds of very interesting stuff in there. But it’s also a really beautiful work of art.”
They’re working on it now, and it may be on permanent display at the KMA by the end of September.