A new mural aiming to further the dialogue about racial equity will start taking shape on Friday, April 9, in downtown Dubuque.
“I Am A Man,” a two-story creation by Iowa artist Dana Harrison, will grace the side of the building located at West Eighth and Bluff streets.
Billed as a “temporary exhibition,” the mural is based on a photograph by photojournalist Bob Adelman. It was taken in 1968 during a memorial march in Memphis, Tenn., days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
King had planned to lead the “I Am A Man” march in Memphis, which supported the sanitation workers strike that began in February of that year, calling attention to dangerous working conditions, low pay and racial violence.
The local effort is a partnership between Dubuque Museum of Art and Voices Productions, the organization behind Dubuque’s assortment of murals.
“There have been a lot of changes in the past 12 months with COVID(-19 and) a new executive director,” said Gary Stoppelman, who took the helm of the museum in September. “The conversation has shifted to, how do we continue to strengthen our audience through art when our audience has had to stay away? We’ve had to innovate in all sorts of ways.”
Voices Productions Chairman Sam Mulgrew reached out to the museum in January with the pitch to paint a mural on the side of the former KDTH building, which the museum purchased in 2016. Initially, Mulgrew was not prepared for a “yes” from the organization. But he said the collaboration is ideal.
“The Dubuque Museum of Art is the perfect organization to go out and be an agent of this dialogue,” Mulgrew said. “It’s bold. It’s germane. And the timing is perfect as we come out of the pandemic and continue to have conversations about race.”
Stoppelman said the mural offers an opportunity for the museum to not only connect with a massive audience who will pass the work but also to make a transparent statement about its role in racial equity.
“Art is part of how we strengthen our diversity in the face of systemic racism,” he said. “We could never fit a two-story mural in our gallery. This offers us a clear first step in the long journey to strengthening the conversation of diversity and exposing it through art. It also helps us connect to our past and to our future.”
Mulgrew said Adelman’s photograph captures more than just a moment in history.
“The words are simple: ‘I am a man,’” he said. “But you also see so much in the body language. There is grief in the eyes. But there is hope in the posture. It epitomizes the pure strength of man and the dignity some of us get and some of us don’t.”
According to the museum, Harrison considers the mural to be a statement about equal rights, though he encourages onlookers to “perceive it in their own way.”
The location of the mural is significant.
The intersection is where the museum was established in 1874, also home to the Lorimier House, which later was purchased and renamed the Wales Hotel. Today, it is the location of the Telegraph Herald.
According to TH archives from July 1880, an African Methodist Episcopal congregation “purchased a lot at the rear of the Lorimier House, north of Julien Avenue,” or present-day Eighth Street. The lot would become the site of a church that served a small, Black neighborhood located up Eighth Street and including the area of Hill Street and University Avenue during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Also significant, museum officials said, will be the mural’s proximity to Washington Square, a location that historically has been the site of demonstrations.
Plans still call for the former KDTH building’s eventual demolition, though no date has been set as the museum continues to evaluate its future infrastructure needs.
The mural’s estimated cost is between $4,000 and $5,000. Trappist Caskets and Humanities Iowa are supporting the project.
Stoppelman believes the real value lies in the potential conversations that come from such a piece.
“All murals are temporary,” Stoppelman said. “When you look at our mission as an art museum and the different ways we consider value, there is much more to be found in the subject matter and the conversations it provokes than the reclaimed rock.”
Although the exhibition won’t be permanent, Dubuque Museum of Art curator and registrar Stacy Peterson hopes the dialogue will remain.
“The challenge will be continuing these conversations after the mural is no longer there to remind us,” she said. “We hope the message is one that will be carried forward.”