WPA murals in spotlight

NEW ULM – The potential sale of the former high school at 15 N. State St. appears to have brought the issue of its murals back into the spotlight.

The potential sale of the school comes before the District 88 School Board on Thursday, March 27. The would-be buyer, a group called Cenate, includes community theater enthusiasts, as well as local business and community leaders with a long-term commitment to New Ulm. (Basic parameters of the planned sale were reported in The Journal on Sunday, March 23.)

The murals were commissioned by the Federal Art Project, a Work Projects Administration (WPA) division, and painted by artist John Martin Socha in 1940. They are titled “The Battle of New Ulm” (referring to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862), “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux,” and “Progress and Industry.” The murals were oil painted on canvas in a St. Paul studio and exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis. They were brought to New Ulm and affixed permanently to the plaster walls of the auditorium.

Many people active in the community’s life – including the parties involved in the potential school deal – consider the murals an integral part of the history and culture of New Ulm.

But the wall paintings mean even more to local history enthusiast George Glotzbach, the son of the WPA head who oversaw their construction.

When the possibility surfaced in 2001 about their removal because of how they depict the Dakota, Glotzbach vehemently fought the idea.

“I walked by these murals and looked at them every day, for six years of my life,” Glotzbach says, referring to his years at school. “They are my patrimony! … They must not be taken down.”

Glotzbach’s current concern centers around the strength of the language addressing the fate of the murals in the draft sale agreement for the school.

The draft document states, in part:

Page 8 (section on Seller’s Closing Obligations): “Murals. If necessary, [Seller will] execute an appropriate conveyancing document for the purpose of conveying the murals in the auditorium to a historical preservation agency acceptable and agreed to by both Seller and Buyer and/or a Maintenance Agreement for the purpose of such agency maintaining and preserving the murals in place.”

Page 15: “Buyer and Seller understand that there are three hand-painted murals on the walls of the Auditorium which have significant historical value. Seller and Buyer are intending that the murals shall stay in place, even following the transfer of the Auditorium, but that ownership of the murals may be transferred to a historical preservation or museum agent who is willing to commit to preserving and maintaining the murals in place. Buyer and Seller shall cooperate in obtaining such commitment and assurances from a historical preservation/museum agent acceptable to both Seller and Buyer. Buyer agrees to cooperate with enabling the murals to stay in place indefinitely as they are currently located and displayed in the Auditorium.”

This language does not appear to provide enough of a safeguard to Glotzbach.

He acknowledges the positive intentions of the parties involved – but says expressions such as “if necessary” and “may” (rather than “shall”) make him nervous.

Glotzbach raises the specter of what could happen if the auditorium changes hands again, before the good intentions materialize, or in case of an unforeseen “catastrophe.”

The murals should not go to a private owner who could walk away with them, says Glotzbach “I’d chain myself to the front doors [to stop it],” emphatically states Glotzbach.

Glotzbach also offers a solution – transfer the murals to a historic agency before, rather than after, the building’s sale to a private group.

“Everybody’s on the same page – let’s just do it,” says Glotzbach, referencing those involved in the process.

Glotzbach has actually offered to buy the murals himself – “if that would help” – then immediately transfer ownership of them to the Brown County Historical Society (BCHS).

“I am ready, willing and able to come up with the cash, on a 24-hour notice,” says Glotzbach.

BCHS President Anne Earl says that the BCHS has “a great interest” in keeping the murals at their present location. If that’s the way to prevent them from being moved or torn down, the BCHS would seek and/or accept legal ownership, said Earl. The BCHS would then loan the murals back out to be on permanent display in the building.

“Representatives from the BCHS have expressed interest over the past few months in regards to the murals,” confirmed Superintendent Jeff Bertrang.

“They have offered to take up responsibility for them and be the caretakers, as the murals stay in place in the auditorium. We have addressed this in the purchase agreement, so that the murals stay in place and can be transitioned to a historical society. Both Cenate and District 88 intend for the murals to stay in place and be cared for.”

Reed Glawe, a local attorney who is acting as Interim President of Cenate, also shared thoughts about the matter:

“I anticipate and expect that both the district and Cenate will work with the BCHS to see if the fit is right and to see what the BCHS is willing to do in terms of maintaining the murals in place. The time is too short right now prior to Thursday’s meeting to try and put together details on what the BCHS’s obligations and requirements might be. If approved by the school board, both the District and Cenate will be contractually bound to make sure the murals stay in place and are maintained/cared for by someone or some entity with experience in doing so. I have no idea whether the BCHS has that ability or expertise. … They seem to be a logical candidate, but we don’t want to rush into a decision that is as important to the community as the preservation of the murals in place. This is a decision that will have ramifications for years and generations to come. At the risk of repeating myself, both Cenate and the District are committed to keeping the murals in place and preserved.”

Glotzbach is not involved with Cenate.

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