The San Francisco school board is reconsidering a decision to destroy a series of historic Depression-era murals depicting slaves and a dead Native American, following widespread complaints that the move amounted to censorship.
A proposal released by the board Friday no longer calls for painting over the 13 frescoes at George Washington High School called “The Life of Washington” by artist Victor Arnautoff. Instead, the proposed resolution calls for the artwork to be covered with panels or other “material, means or methods.” The measure, which the board will consider Tuesday, also says the murals would be digitized for art historians to access.
The resolution appears to be a compromise: the murals would survive but would not be visible at the school.
“If the school board adopts this, it’s worth applauding,” said Jon Golinger, executive director of the Coalition to Protect Public Art, a group of artists, historians, educators and free speech advocates who formed to save the murals. “They are taking off the table the notion of permanent destruction of these murals.”
“The Life of Washington” frescoes were painted in the mid-1930s and funded by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that provided jobs for the unemployed, including artists, during the Great Depression. Arnautoff, who was a Communist, depicted Washington in a critical light, showing him as a slave owner and a leader of the nation that annihilated Native Americans.
In June, the board voted unanimously to paint over the frescoes, saying the images were offensive to Native Americans and African Americans, some of whom pass by the paintings on their way to class.
That might have been the end of the murals, but the controversy exploded into a national and international story, with historians, politicians, educators, artists and others arguing that the board was whitewashing an important artwork, and history itself. In the past few days, the local branch of the NAACP joined the opposition.
At times, the debate devolved into angry accusations. At a meeting where Robert Cherny, author of “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art,” was speaking, a protester pointed fingers at the audience and shouted, “Genocide! Genocide!”
In a news release Friday, the school board president, Stevon Cook, acknowledged there were “strong passions on both sides.”
“Where we all agree is that the mural depicts the racist history of America, especially in regards to African Americans and Native Americans,” he said in the release.
In an earlier interview, Cook said he was not “trying to erase the past,” which he said should be taught in classrooms. His objection, he said, was to the prominence of what he called “violent murals” that extend from the school’s entryway to its lobby, making it nearly impossible for students to ignore. Cook said he and the rest of the school board wanted students to “see images of themselves that inspire them and reflect who they are and what they can accomplish.”
It is unclear how the other six members of the board will respond, but the fact that the president submitted the resolution indicates that the murals have a good chance of being saved.
Amy Anderson, a parent and teacher who had led the charge to eliminate the murals, said Friday that she believed the artwork was damaging to students.
Anderson, who is Native American, said she recognized that she and her supporters were outnumbered. When asked for her response to the new resolution, Anderson said: “It’s on their conscience. As a parent, I’m not giving up on my kid and not on this until the murals are painted down.”
The other side is equally determined. Golinger, of the coalition to save the murals, said the group could live with a covering like a curtain that could be easily pulled back but would object to anything like a wall. His organization was working to place the issue on a ballot for city voters, and may still attempt to do so, he said.
“We will continue to oppose putting up an impenetrable barrier that blocks anyone from ever seeing these important works of art,” Golinger said in a news release. “It’s critical that any solution include a way for the murals to be made available for students, teachers and others to view them for educational purposes.”