The Reading Room murals, completed by Atlanta artist Ralph Gilbert, boldly declare the Lilly Library Reading Room is a treasured, inspiring destination for all who study and work here.
Thousands of hours each year are spent here by scholars, students, and intellectually curious visitors exploring the millions of literary artifacts held in what is one of the world's great rare books libraries. This arresting cycle of murals reflects the nature of some of the Lilly Library's extraordinary holdings and signifies its unquestionable importance as the heart of Indiana University's Lilly Library.
Open a new window to interact with a SketchFab rendering of the Reading Room and its murals
A video visit in the Atlanta studio of muralist Ralph Gilbert
Videography by Ben Bowden Lee, rights managed by Indiana University
Step inside the Reading Room
In this celebratory video created by Indiana University, join the director of the Lilly Library and the mural artist inside the rededicated Reading Room.
Artist Statement, July 2021
Ralph Gilbert, American Muralist
As I write this, it has been only eight weeks since I finished the Lilly Library Reading Room Murals. Still, the very beginnings of this experience, starting a little over a year ago, remain vivid. When I submitted my work and qualifications to the selection committee, I felt confident in my abilities, yet at that point, I had no idea how great a challenge this commission would be.
The murals as you see them now are not the result of a grand and spontaneous vision. Instead, they are built step by step, starting with an understanding of the Lilly Library, its holdings, culture, design, and its position within the University and among libraries of its kind. That research led to drawings, some that focused on form rather than content and others stressing content over form. Those drawings led to a series of painted studies that served as the foundation for the murals. Finally, after four months of preparation, I felt ready for the full-scale canvases, mounted on both sides of a 40-foot wall that ran down the center of my studio.
Even though my preparation was extensive, I never considered the studies to be binding. As I began painting the murals, I made frequent revisions: imagery and design motifs were altered, added, and taken away. Ultimately, while planning was important, so was improvisation—the murals were in flux until the very end of the process.
The greatest challenges of the Lilly Library Bicentennial Murals Project were to absorb and fairly represent the scope of the holdings; to meet the extremely high expectations of sophisticated viewers; to stand up to comparison with the famous Thomas Hart Benton murals that neighbor the Lilly Library; and to do all this in a single, non-stop year of painting.
I feel honored to have been selected for this commission by President McRobbie and the Committee and to have contributed something meaningful to the Lilly Library and Indiana University.
The Lilly Library Bicentennial Murals Project
The Bicentennial cycle of murals was intended to long stand as testament to the artistic and intellectual traditions reflected in the Lilly Library. The finished murals will be in the safekeeping of a university committed to conservation, and with a fierce regard for the educational impact art brings to learning. The vision for the murals was a reflection of the Library's rich resources in world literature, history, the sciences, and the arts, and to honor the legacy of J. K. Lilly, Jr. whose remarkable private library of books and manuscripts formed the nucleus of the Lilly Library collections.
In January 2020, it was announced that Lilly Endowment Inc. had awarded Indiana University an additional gift to commission an inspirational and educational cycle of murals in the Reading Room of its world-class Lilly Library. The library, built in 1960, was completely renovated during IU's Bicentennial year, thanks to a previous gift of nearly $11 million from Lilly Endowment Inc.
Expressions of Interest
Indiana University was honored to receive 76 Expressions of Interest for the Lilly Library Bicentennial Murals Project, submitted by artists from Indiana and around the globe in January and February 2020. View our archived Request for Expressions of Interest.
After thoughtful consideration of many factors, including context, the reading room environment, and the Lilly Library collections, seven artists were selected as finalists. These artists represented a diverse range of artistic approaches and styles that mirror the breadth and diversity of the Lilly Library's extensive collections.
Finalists for the Lilly Library Bicentennial Murals Project:
- Ralph Gilbert
- Louis and Edouard
- Richard Haas
- Sedrick Huckaby
- Sam Jones
- Alessandra Maria
- Tom Torluemke
Unveiling of the Murals, June 18, 2021
In a small ceremony, Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie rededicated the internationally renowned Lilly Library to service in the university's third century, noting its role as a center for scholarship long responsible for enhancing the reputation of IU.
"Today we celebrate a library with magnificent collections that rival those of any rare books library in the nation," McRobbie said during the June 18 event. "These treasures are not relics locked away to gather dust on an unseen shelf; they are living objects that span the great distance of time between their creation and the present."
Selected muralist Ralph Gilbert unveiled his Reading Room masterpiece at the rededication. "The Lilly Library Bicentennial Murals Project may have been finished by me, but it started with President McRobbie and Lilly Endowment," Gilbert said. "They gave me freedom to create a world of imagery that would broadly tell the story of the Lilly Library and its exceptional holdings.
"I am greatly honored to have contributed to the Lilly Library and to leave something of myself here at IU. But I am also taking away something indelible; for a painter, this has been the experience of a lifetime."
McRobbie presented Gilbert with the Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion for Distinguished Achievement at the rededication ceremony. McRobbie also acknowledged 30 years of distinguished service by retiring Ruth Lilly Dean of University Libraries Carolyn Walters, presenting her with the President's Medal for Excellence.
In her own remarks, Walters emphasized appreciation of the Lilly Library staff. "What we have done since the opening of the Lilly Library in 1960 represents so much of what we librarians dedicate our careers to accomplish: We preserve and share knowledge," she said. "The renovation provides both the environmental controls necessary to preserve the collection long into the future and the accessible spaces needed to share the knowledge stored within the collection.
"It is, however, people who bring materials to life. Librarians have developed new ways of connecting tech-savvy students with print materials. The result is excitement and often a return visit to explore other materials."