Art and Controversy: Thomas Hart Benton, Herman B Wells, and the Indiana Murals

Content Note: This video reproduces a panel of art depicting the Ku Klux Klan. It appears at 10:55 in the video and continues to 11:55. Viewer discretion is advised.

Thomas Hart Benton, one of America’s premier artists during the twentieth century, painted series of murals about Indiana for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. A controversial collection of artworks, the Indiana Murals engaged viewers in a dialogue about Indiana’s complex history—a dialogue that continues to this day. The murals stayed in storage of the Indiana State Fairgrounds until someone believed they deserved a new home. That someone was Herman B Wells, the newly elected president of Indiana University.

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Written and produced by Justin Clark. 

Music: “Fresno Alley” by Josh Lippi & The Overtimers, “Lazy Boy Blues” by Unicorn Heads, “Progressive Moments” by Ugonna Onyekwe, “Creeping Spiders” by Nat Keefe & BeatMower, and “Plenty Step” by Freedom Trail Studio

Full Text of Video

Content Note: This video reproduces a panel of art depicting the Ku Klux Klan. It appears at 10:55 in the video and continues to 11:55. Viewer discretion is advised.

February 8, 1938. It was a cool, cloudy day at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The Manufacturer’s Building, usually filled during fair time with engines, tractors, and other large inventions, had become the residence of a six-ton “awkward sized crate.” The crate, a nondescript affair on the outside, contained something incredibly special. However, the crate’s size made it nearly impossible for most places to accommodate it, which is why it languished in this building for four years. Inside the crate wasn’t a new manufacturing engine or small airplane, but a series of masterworks from Thomas Hart Benton, one of America’s premier artists at the time. Inside were the Indiana Murals, made for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. A controversial collection of artworks, the Indiana Murals engaged viewers in a dialogue about Indiana’s complex history—a dialogue that continues to this day. The murals stayed in this crate until someone believed they deserved a new home. That someone was Herman B Wells, the newly elected president of Indiana University.

A Missourian for most of his life, Thomas Hart Benton interpreted his midwestern roots through exquisite murals, which adorn the walls of museums and public buildings across the United States. Despite his success, Benton’s critics saw his work as controversial for being “too realistic” and “too vital,” according to the Washington Evening Star, as it depicted “people drinking, dancing, singing, playing craps, pitching horseshoes, driving mules, forging furnaces, getting religion, [and] making love.”

In fact, controversy surrounded how the Indiana murals were made as much as what they represented. It started with Indiana State Representative John W. Scott of Gary introducing legislation for the creation of a Chicago World’s Fair commission on January 24, 1929, which was passed during that year’s legislative session. Indiana Governor Harry G. Leslie, under authority of the new law, appointed nine members to the commission, with one of the nine serving as chair. For the next three years, the commission went through many members, including industrialist Frank C. Ball and author George Ade. The commission’s lack of progress ended with Governor Leslie’s commission appointment of Richard Lieber, director of the state department of conservation, on November 17, 1932.

Lieber, who was named head of the commission shortly thereafter, completely re-envisioned the project, suggesting the idea of a series of murals that would show the history of Indiana. He was also instrumental in selecting Benton as the artist, which bothered many within the Hoosier art community, who wanted the commission to go to an Indiana artist. In an example of this frustration, Indiana artist Elmer Taflinger filed a lawsuit against the commission, alleging that the bidding process discriminated against Hoosier painters. Taflinger additionally requested in the suit that his residence be changed, since artists claiming Indiana as their home “amounts only to a stigma.” However, Lieber and the commission’s decision to choose Benton wasn’t out of discrimination, but rather of timing. The World’s Fair was six months away and Lieber wanted to select an artist quickly to provide them time to complete the work. Lieber knew of Benton work’s and believed he could finish the job, which is why the commission selected Benton on December 28, 1932. A rigging of the process couldn’t have happened because there wasn’t an open call for artists in the first place, hence the controversy.

Benton addressed Taflinger in an interview with the Times a few weeks later, saying that he wanted a truce with the artist and even offered him work on completing the mural project. “He’s a good fellow, even if he does want to change his birthplace through a court suit because I was awarded the job,” Benton said to the reporters; “he can come down and help me himself if he wants to.” The Times piece went on describe Benton’s process. First, sixteen wooden foundations measuring 18 feet high and 12 feet wide were constructed, which Benton then covered with canvas. Drawings of the intended work were completed, followed by sculptures to get a sense of dimensions, then a small paining of the panel followed by a large, completed final panel. He finished the project on May 13, 1933. Crews delicately packed the works and moved them to the Indiana building of the Chicago World’s Fair, a process that took nearly twenty-four hours.

The Chicago World’s Fair, known by its tagline, “Century of Progress,” opened on May 27, 1933. Benton’s murals displaying the history of the Hoosier state debuted in the Indiana building on June 1, with a dedication from Indiana Governor Paul V. McNutt. Despite sweltering, 100-degree June days, Hoosiers “flocked” to the new paintings in large numbers, the Indianapolis Times reported. Edwin Earle, known art enthusiast from New York, called the murals a “magnificent success” and Benton “a superb interpreter of the American scene.” Each panel shared the long and complex history of the state, from pioneer clashes with Native Americans to the growth of the state’s industry and education.

After nearly six months on display, in November of 1933, Benton’s Indiana murals were taken down and removed from the Chicago World’s Fair, following a formal closing of the exhibit attended by Governor McNutt. Even then, the future of the murals occupied the minds of state officials and art lovers. As the Times wrote, “Prediction was made that the Indiana murals will be housed properly in the near future. For the present, they are to be taken to Indianapolis and stored.”

The original plan was for the murals to be displayed at the Indiana War Memorial. “Although the World war memorial commission still is a bit vague about bringing the beauties to its lair,” wrote the Times, “Frank H. Henley, secretary, admitted today that the board had considered the proposition favorably.” In the meantime, it was reported that crews had stored the murals in a state highway garage, where the works “must beat their path through trucks and oil cans.” The War Memorial’s planned installation of the murals fell through, however, and the works found their way to the Indiana State Fairgrounds by 1936.

By February 1938, the six-ton murals, valued at $20,000, sat in storage in the Manufacturer’s Building at the fairgrounds. As before, a permanent home for the work was on people’s minds. In an article for the Times, Wilber D. Peat, Director of the John Herron Art Institute, said, “certainly art patrons would like to have this history where it could be seen.” Ross Teckemeyer, examiner of the State Board of Accounts, said, “I’ll turn them over to any responsible party. All they need is a building to put them in.”

The “responsible party” most passionate about the murals was none other than lifelong Hoosier Herman B Wells, the brand-new president of Indiana University. A dedicated art lover (he became acquainted with Hoosier art scion T. C. Steele as an undergrad at IU), Wells’ gregarious personality and finesse with administration brought new life to the project. He believed that the university would be a good home for the murals, as they shared the history of the state and fit Wells’ mission to improve the cultural life of IU. He brought a proposal to IU’s board of trustees to take possession of the murals and display them in a complete renovation of Assembly Hall, originally slated for demolition. The plan was approved in May of 1938 and a month later the board implemented a plan to renovate Assembly Hall at a cost of $3,500-$4,000.

The trustees and President Wells quickly abandoned the Assembly Hall plan when, during a special session of the Indiana General Assembly, legislators debated funding for special projects in coordination with the federal Public Works Administration (PWA). Wells and Purdue President Edward Elliott used this opportunity to lobby for the funding of new auditoriums for each university, which was successfully earmarked by the legislature. The new auditorium project was approved by the IU board of trustees on July 30, 1938, with architect A. M. Strauss charged with developing “preliminary plans and outline specifications” for the PWA grant. Indiana University received the federal PWA funding and approved its use for the completion of the new auditorium in September of 1938. A month later, President Wells confirmed to the board that Governor M. Clifford Townsend approved the moving of the murals to Indiana University for installation in the new auditorium. Confirmation of the plan was published by the Hammond Times on October 30, 1938.

At a final cost of $1,170,000, the new auditorium, with the Benton murals installed, was dedicated on March 22, 1941, according to the Indianapolis Star. Panels were placed in the appropriately named “hall of murals” as well as in the 400-seat auditorium theater, the Muncie Star Press reported. In his speech that day, President Wells spoke of the murals, noting that they are “one of the most outstanding features’ of the building.”

Today, the murals are still on display at Indiana University, but one panel is limited to the public. A panel installed in Woodburn Hall depicts a Ku Klux Klan rally, complete with robes and a burning cross in the background, with an interracial hospital and journalists working in the foreground. This panel’s original intent was to acknowledge the dark past of Indiana’s connection to the Klan, as most of state government was influenced by its activities during the 1920s. The journalists in the mural represented the undeterred efforts of newspapers to take down the Klan in the state, notably the Indianapolis Times. In fact, Benton explicitly denounced racism in 1940, saying, “We in this country put no stock in racial genius. We do not believe that because a man comes from one strain rather than another, he starts with superior equipment.” However, over time, this context has been lost to casual viewers of the mural, leading to calls for either covering it or removing it.

As early as 1990, newspapers covered the controversy over the Klan piece. The Jewish Post reported that IU officials decided to keep the mural panel on display, accompanied with the production of an instructive video on its context and history. The Indianapolis Recorder also ran a story in 2002 about the panel, noting how African American students continually led protests for its removal.

In 2017, among nationwide protests against Confederate monuments and other controversial works, over 1,600 students at IU called again for the painting to be removed or covered. While students acknowledged in their petition that Benton intended to confront the state’s sordid past and not glorify the Klan, the painting alone does not provide that context to students. Therefore, it was best to not provide an audience to the artwork without said context. Jesse Benton, the artist’s daughter, published an op-ed in the Indiana Herald Times Online defending her father and calling for the painting to remain available. As she wrote:

Thomas Hart Benton was not a racist; on the contrary, he was a champion of civil rights for all. Rather than hide the painting away in some dark corner, shine a brighter light on it. Do not deride and misunderstand the intentions of my beautiful father. Look deeper. It is art. Instead of denying history, embrace it, talk about it, keep it from ever happening again.

On September 27, 2017, Lauren Robel, Executive Vice President and Provost of Indiana University, announced that Woodburn Hall would no longer be used for classes and would be utilized only under specific, planned circumstances. In her statement, Robel said:

I believe that repurposing the room is the best accommodation of the multiple factors that the murals raise: our obligation to be a welcoming community to all of our students and facilitate their learning; our stewardship of this priceless art; and our obligation to stand firm in defense of artistic expression. I invite community members to think creatively about how best to use this repurposed space to engage with the issues the murals present.

While this decision likely left some unsatisfied, Indiana University acted in keeping with Herman B Wells’ intention for the murals nearly 80 years ago: to provide them a permanent home to share the good, and the bad, of Indiana’s history.

Thomas Hart Benton’s Indiana murals, and the controversy surrounding one of its panels, exist within a broader cultural discussion about art in the public sphere. Should works considered as “controversial” be removed, or should they be displayed along with context? Is there a limit to artistic freedom in the instance of public works, as these murals were? There are no easy answers to these questions, but the pursuit of those answers is valuable.

The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook, an online resource dedicated to questions like these, said of murals and memorials: “There is nothing that obligates Americans to remember in the ways that they do.” This exemplifies the debate around the Benton Murals. While Benton’s intentions were understood in the time that he painted the murals, they aren’t as well understood today. An IU student attending class in Woodburn hall would not know the context of the mural piece—that it was part of a much larger work on Indiana history and represented Benton’s anti-racist politics—and asking for faculty to explain the piece every time they are in the space is not feasible or fair to the subject, the students, and the faculty themselves. As such, this controversy isn’t “difficult history” when confronted head on; rather, it is history which requires context, scholarship, and empathy for those adversely affected. Hence, IU’s decision to no longer use Woodburn Hall for classes and only provide the space under appropriate guidelines and guidance.

Despite its complicated circumstances, the Benton murals are a unique and remarkable addition to the cultural tapestry of Indiana. Herman B Wells believed in their importance so much that he used his clout as the new president of IU to have them installed and saved for perpetuity. These murals embody the history of Indiana, with all its highs and lows. They are a testament to artistic expression and the value of public works that can be shared, and discussed, by all.

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