George Washington High School’s alumni association is suing the San Francisco Unified School District and school board over a controversial mural inside of the high school that has been at the center of national debate over the value of preserving public art memorializing historical oppression.
The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court on Friday, challenges a vote by the school board in August to cover the New Deal era mural that spans George Washington High School’s lobby with solid panels.
The alumni association, which over the past months has opposed efforts by the school board and members of the school’s community to remove the mural, is seeking to prevent the mural’s obstruction and pressing the board to rescind its vote. The group is challenging the August vote to cover it up on the grounds that the district has not conducted an environmental review required by California law.
Per the lawsuit, the association is seeking an order by the court directing the school board to “set aside its decision to remove the Arnautoff mural from public view. Before considering approval, it must conduct an EIR process to consider whether or not to leave the mural in place,since its removal from public view would have significant environmental effects.”
“The George Washington High School Alumni Association has filed a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuit to preserve, protect, and defend the Victor Arnautoff murals at George Washington High School,” said John Rothmann, the association’s president, in a statement on Friday.
“We are dedicated to the proposition that the Arnautoff murals should be preserved as a magnificent work of public art for future generations and used, as the artist intended, as a way of teaching history,” he said.
The school board initially voted unanimously in June to paint over the mural, which depicts slavery and genocide, in an effort to address the concerns of black and brown students, their families and some teachers at the school who found its imagery to be offensive and traumatizing to students who are forced to pass it daily.
Efforts to remove the mural date back some 50 years — in the 1970s, following protests by the Black Panther Party and the school’s Black Student Union, San Francisco artist artist Dewey Crumpler, was commissioned to paint three “response murals” inside of the school paying homage to the culture and achievements of African American, Asian, Native American and Latinx communities.
The 13-panel 1936 Fresco mural by Russian artist Victor Arnautoff, called “Life of Washington,” shows slaves shucking corn and colonists towering over a dead Native American. Other panels of the mural show indigenous people with scalps attached to their waists.
The June vote sparked stark opposition from arts preservationists and the alumni association, who likened the decision to censorship. Supporters of the mural united as the Coalition to Protect Public Art threatened to place the issue before San Francisco voters by way of a ballot measure next year.
The school board in August revisited the issue and directed the district to assess alternatives to destroying it, including covering the mural with solid panels.
Jon Golinger, the coalition’s executive director, told the San Francisco Examiner on Friday that the ballot initiative is moving forward, and that its language is currently being drafted. Golinger said that while the lawsuit and ballot initiative are separate efforts, they run on “parallel tracks.”
“I read the lawsuit this morning — the remedy we are asking for is for the board to rescind the August vote. If that occurs, we will evaluate whether, for the time being, that is enough,” said Golinger. “Our intent for the ballot measure effort is to see this thing through and make sure that concerns around the mural are dealt with and not ingored, but that everybody else isn’t prevented from seeing the mural and that there is context and information [about the mural] available.”
A SFUSD spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.
“It’s a sad state of affairs that an alumni assocation is raising tens of thousands of dollars to save a mural that black and indigenous students have been saying makes them feel unwelcome in their school since at least the 1960s,” said School Board Commissioner Alison Collins. “It’s amazing to see all this political muscle being used to drown out student voice in one high school.”