The Art Problem at M.D. Anderson

This work of art is a large mural. It's 17 feet high, floor to ceiling, and it's so long it curves around a corner from one hallway to another. It was painted on the wall of the lobby of the 18 story building that was the home office of the Prudential Insurance Company when it was built in 1952. This building with the outline of the Rock of Gibraltar at the top was a landmark on Houston's south side. Prudential commissioned the well known landscape artist Peter Hurd to paint the mural, which shows daily life and work on a west Texas ranch. Hurd titled the mural "The Future Belongs To Those Who Prepare For It", fitting for a life insurance company, but not for the huge and growing M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which bought the building in 1974. Fitting or not, the mural is still there, and it's in serious danger. MD Anderson's vice president for operations and facilities, Bill Daigneau, says the building is falling apart slowly, and taking the mural with it.

"See this crack? The building is settling and it's actually cracking the mural. If we don't do anything, soon, the mural itself will deconstruct itself with the building, because the building is differentially settling, so it's actually cracking the mural."

Daigneau says the building has to come down, but he's been working with Peter Hurd's family for more than five years to save the mural. It's worth several million dollars, but M. D. Anderson will give it away free to anyone willing to pay for removing it, and that's the rub. Estimates of that cost start at half a million dollars, which is why M.D. Anderson is doing everything it can to find someone willing to take the mural off the wall, and off their hands.

"We're comfortable that we have exhausted every reasonable avenue. We are still open, should someone come forward, to talk to the Hurd Gallery about it, we have a contract with them, or if there are other alternatives we're open to them. We're not trying to sell the mural, we're just trying to save it, so if someone can figure out how to do that we will work with them wholeheartedly."

Wholeheartedly means they're offering to give the mural away, free, to anyone willing to pay for removing it, and that's the rub. The entire wall will have to be removed very carefully, in pieces, and estimates of that cost start at half a million dollars. M.D. Anderson isn't willing to foot that bill, but there are others who might be.

Peter Hurd's son Michael Hurd runs the Wyeth-Hurd Gallery in New Mexico. He says no one has offered to adopt the mural yet, because of the removal cost, but since word of its imminent doom got out, several people have contacted him offering to pay for removing the mural and putting it in safe storage until a home can be found. Hurd feels good about their chances.

"I really do now. I think we're on the verge of identifying one of these patrons to do the study and fund the removal of the mural, and interestingly they all seem to have very specific ideas of where to put the mural and how to do it. So that's good too. It's not just a shot in the dark."

Something Bill Daigneau said in a newspaper interview several weeks ago has generated controversy. As a panorama of life and work on a ranch, the mural shows Anglo people having a picnic, cowboys herding cattle, and two black men loading a haywagon. Daigneau told a reporter the mural doesn't reflect the cancer center's values, because of who is "running" the ranch and who's "working" on it. Since that interview, M.D. Anderson has been criticized far and wide for bowing to political correctness in picking its decorative art. Daigneau says he's been misunderstood. He says he was trying to say that the mural doesn't fit the cancer center's mission. It was right for the front lobby of an insurance company, but not for a hospital, where healing is the mission.

"The art that M.D. Anderson uses in all of its facilities is based on some research that was done several years ago that indicated the rate of healing was faster if people were looking at a natural setting."

Daigneau says M.D. Anderson puts only landscape art in soft colors in its buildings. Art that shows "people" in various settings could be open to misinterpretation. He says beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and M.D. Anderson wants patients to see only the beauty.

"So things that you and I would look at that would say, well, that doesn't strike us in any way, other people would look at the same thing, especially some of our patients, and they'll read things into it that you and I may not."

Dr. Emily Neff is Curator of American Art and Art History at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. She says Peter Hurd was an important artist and nationally famous for his landscapes depicting the land and life in the American southwest. Neff says if anything, she thinks the artist was making a statement, bold for its time, about the diversity of this part of the country.

"Peter Hurd in doing this mural in 1952 Houston, with the Jim Crow Laws still around, I mean this was that period just before, that for him, if he is about a regionalist ethic, which is about expressing, in this instance ranch life in west Texas in the 1950s, he may have thought that was he was doing was inclusive, that he was giving an image for African-Americans and their contributions to Texas ranch life."

MD Anderson plans to demolish the old building sometime next year, and they want the Hurd mural to be out by the end of this year. Michael Hurd says he's optimistic it will be done.

Jim Bell. KUHF, Houston Public Radio.

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