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UVA Welcomes Berlin Wall Exhibit

The University of Virginia recently unveiled a surprising work of art – a painting by one of Germany’s best known graffiti artists -- on four panels of the Berlin Wall.

More than a hundred VIP’s assembled on the lawn in front of UVA’s main library to witness the unveiling of a giant painting called The Kings of Freedom – 12 feet tall and 16 feet wide.  It sat behind a curtain, inside a protective case of iron and glass.  The University’s Vice President for the Arts, Jody Kielbasa, said one of the main roads on campus had to be closed for two days as the four panels were installed west of the Rotunda.

"We had a crane lifting them 150 feet in the air above this treeline, and then gently placed on the grounds here outside the Alderman library at the University of Virginia."

The painting was purchased soon after the wall came down by a wealthy oil and gas man from Oklahoma.  Robert Hefner won’t say what he paid, but the East German government parted with similar sections of wall for up to $800,000.  Dozens of pieces were sent to museums, universities, embassies and other institutions around the world, and Hefner displayed his section in Oklahoma City before shipping it to Singapore – his wife’s home town – where it stayed for more than a decade.

Then, the Hefners decided they’d retire to Charlottesville, buy an estate and plant a vineyard.  They had the wall shipped to Norfolk, and then decided they’d loan it to Mr. Jefferson’s University. President Teresa Sullivan welcomed the work.

“In 1820, Mr. Jefferson wrote to a friend: The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.  It was a wave of boisterous liberty that toppled the wall in 1989.”

Then, it was time for the grand unveiling.

Kings of Freedom features two heads – one belonging to the King of the West, who’s bold and colorful – the other to the King of the East, who’s blindfolded and gray.  Underscoring that contrast is the other side of the work itself, which was guarded by East German soldiers who kept graffiti artists away. 

In Berlin, less than one mile of the wall remains, and artists from around the world have taken advantage of the bare concrete to create more than a hundred colorful murals in what is now described as the largest open air gallery in the world.  A popular tourist attraction, the East Side Gallery is the subject of controversy – not because of the art, but because developers hope to build in one of the city’s hottest new neighborhoods, along the Spree River.  Already, more than 130 feet of the wall have been moved so a new arena could have a clear view of the water. Another 16 feet were removed to make a path for construction equipment, and with plans for luxury condominiums and a hotel moving forward, more could be lost.

Thousands of Germans have rallied against further development – demanding preservation of the wall and open space along the river, but politicians warn that blocking new projects could cost the city $230 million.

Meanwhile, here in Virginia, businessman Robert Hefner is hoping to profit from his small section of the wall.  After its year on the UVA campus, it’s expected to draw visitors to the tasting room of Hefner’s vineyard.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief