How would you embark on painting the history and the present of agriculture in the state of Georgia? What decisions would you make that would have been the same or different from the choices Beattie made for his murals? Are his subjects the ones you would choose? Were they appropriate in 1956, and are they appropriate today?
Beattie’s murals for the state Department of Agriculture building in Atlanta have provoked controversy related to their appropriateness, cultural meaning, and quality. A 2009 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution re-questioned, in particular, the image of slaves picking and ginning cotton. In late 2010, new Commissioner of Agriculture Gary W. Black ordered all the murals removed from the building.
Conservators were able to take down safely seven of the eight paintings on Masonite from their respective locations in the building, and all eight paintings were transferred to the ownership of the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia.
Here are some reactions to the murals that appeared in print:
“We have had some people who found them offensive. I say I as a black woman see it as part of history. . . . We can’t just roll out history when it’s convenient.” — Brenda James Griffin, retired assistant commissioner of public affairs, Georgia Department of Agriculture, 2009.
“My students and I were shocked that [the slavery mural] is so prominent in a government building.” —Bruce Wade, associate professor of sociology, Spelman College, 2009.
“I don’t like those pictures. There are a lot of other people who don’t like them. . . . I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture.” —Commissioner of Agriculture Gary W. Black, 2010.
“Even if you don’t embrace [the murals], accept them for what they are and use them as teaching tools.” —Bob Ray Sanders, columnist, Fort Worth (TX) Star-Telegram, 2011.