Monday, August 20, 2012

A Talk with Tim Frilingos

Georgia Department of Agriculture exterior

Tim Frilingos is the director of the Georgia Capitol Museum, which recently became part of the University of Georgia Libraries. He was intimately involved in the removal of George Beattie’s murals from the Georgia Department of Agriculture and in their transfer to the Georgia Museum of Art. The Capitol Museum focuses on the history of the Georgia Capitol, although Frilingos says part of the reason it was moved under the University System of Georgia is because there are still hopes of a Georgia history museum.

Frilingos said that, a few years ago, in 2009, he received a phone call from Donna Williams Lewis, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who had gone into the Georgia Department of Agriculture building and was “aghast at what she saw.” At that point, he hadn’t yet seen the murals, especially as his museum “really focuses on the capitol,” so he walked over to the building to take a look. Frilingos didn’t really see them as offensive, especially as someone with “an affinity for WPA murals,” and after some research his opinion was confirmed. “They seemed pretty enlightened compared to what other people were saying in the era,” he said.

At that time, Arty Schronce, director of public affairs for the Agriculture Department, contacted Frilingos. Schronce’s department then prepared a handout that was distributed to members of the public. The handout focused on the history of Georgia agriculture and how the murals portrayed it.

After Lewis’s article ran, Frilingos said, “I hadn’t really heard anything about it until January 2011, when I got a call from the Georgia Building Authority [GBA] that they wanted to remove the murals. They are very leary of trying to remove any art themselves, especially since the renovation of the capitol, so they contact[ed] my office. We went to a meeting with the agriculture commissioner [Gary Black], and I thought we were going to discuss why it wasn’t a good idea to remove them.” Frilingos said that he went through his notes from talking to Lewis, to be prepared, but “It was very clear [in the meeting] that they weren’t going to stay up. So we had to start thinking about how to do it properly.”

He added, “I was never very clear on why [Black] didn’t want them. I don’t know if he really felt they were offensive or not. We were told they were going to put other things in there, but they haven’t yet.”

The murals were framed with metal frames holding them onto the wall, and it appeared to Frilingos and his staff that some of them seemed loose from the wall so that if you took the frame off they would fall, an impression they soon discovered was incorrect.

Frilingos pointed out that neither GBA nor his office was qualified to remove the murals. “It needed a conservator. They needed some care.” He also mentioned that “When something’s painted for a building, the preservationist in me says keep it there. We kept hoping they would, but they didn’t.”

After hiring the conservator, they discovered that even the murals that seemed loose from the wall were still affixed with glue. Frilingos said, “We had to use a wire to get back behind them and separate from the wall. The one that remains was not necessarily supposed to stay there, but we haven’t been able to take it down [without damaging it].” He said that if the building were ever to undergo extensive renovation, it would be more possible to remove the mural, but short of that, it would be very difficult.

As removing the murals was the plan, Frilingos and David Carmichael, director of the Georgia Archives, tried to decide what to do with them. Frilingos said, “I thought if we got them, maybe we could develop some kind of touring exposition, so we sent it out to every art museum we could think of in Georgia, and the Georgia Museum of Art contacted me the next day.” Other groups were interested, but with the reorganization of the Capitol Museum under the University of Georgia, it was “a much cleaner transfer” to move the murals to GMOA’s collection.

When asked what other public art exists at the capitol, Frilingos said there isn’t much. The GBA maintains sculptures, some of which are on the grounds, and the capitol museum maintains the portraits that exist. Apparently, the original plan for the capitol building included murals, “but those plans were nixed for budget reasons.” Some relief sculpture (click here and here to see images of it) exists on the exterior of the agriculture building, but on the whole there is little public art in the area. 

We appreciate Frilingos' insight and his talking to us about his perspective on the removal of the murals.

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