It’s still summer break, but George Washington High School on Thursday was filled with members of the public hoping to get a look at a controversial mural at the center of a national debate over historical oppression, censorship and reparations.
San Francisco Unified School District spokesperson Laura Dudnick told the San Francisco Examiner that the district has received requests from “multiple individuals to view the Life of Washington mural” over the past several months. The 13-panel fresco that spans the school’s main lobby was ordered painted over by the San Francisco School Board earlier this summer , at a projected cost of at least $600,000.
The event drew dozens of people, including San Francisco Planning Commission President Rich Hillis and the grandsons of the mural’s creator, Russian-American painter Victor Arnautoff. It also drew art preservationists and free speech advocates supporting an effort to challenge the school board’s unanimous vote to destroy the mural at the ballot box.
Following the board’s vote in June, a group called Coalition to Protect Public Art last month announced plans for a measure on the March 2020 ballot that would preserve the controversial mural, if passed.
“Once the school board voted to destroy the murals, we were faced with no choice. If and when they proceed to destroy them, legal action will likely happen,” said Jon Golinger, the coalition’s executive director. “On the parallel track, my preference is we resolve this in a way that respects the concerns and gives students who have to walk by it everyday an option not to look at it if they don’t want to.”
Golinger said the intent of the legislation, which is still being drafted, is two-fold: to establish a citywide policy on how to handle the removal of historically significant artwork in the future based on a set of “guidelines that recognize racial equity and art history component and guide city agencies in the future if and when these similar situations arise,” he said.
The measure would also block the destruction or “permanent blockage” of significant pieces of New Deal art in San Francisco without the approval of voters, the arts commission or the Board of Supervisors.
The goal is to “encourage a reasonable conversation and ultimately some compromise,” said Golinger. The coalition has until August 30 to submit the proposed measure’s language and until November 4 to gather enough signatures to place it on next year’s ballot.
Golinger said that the measure is not completely unprecedented. In 2012, he was part of an effort to place a measure before voters that sought funding to restore and protect New Deal era murals within Coit Tower.
“The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department opposed it and Ron Conway spent money against it because they made the false argument that every dollar spent to protect the Coit Tower murals was a dollar taken away from playgrounds in lower income parts of San Francisco,” said Golinger, who noted that the 2012 measure won 53 percent voter approval.
“The voters lending their voice brought everyone to the table to figure out how to solve the problem,” said Golinger, adding that the coalition’s goal is to find a solution that respects the school community’s concerns without destroying the Life of Washington mural.
But the idea of bypassing elected leaders in an effort to save the mural didn’t sit well with everyone.
“We already have a governing body over SFUSD and that’s the school board and commissioners. I do not think that any vote or decision-making related to the inside of our schools needs to be taken away from our school board commissioners because they are elected officials,” said Amy Anderson, a leading voice in the effort to remove the mural.
“We trust in them that they make the best decisions they can — to take the decision making power away from the body we elected to me is a power grab and it is not democracy,” she said.
Former Arts Commissioner Lorraine Garcia -Nakata agreed.
“I think it’s too complex for the voters,” said Garcia-Nakata, adding that the mural, should it remain intact, should be accompanied by a plaque of sorts outlining its historical context, the artist’s intention at the time and its relevance in the present day. She recommended that the mural also be accompanied by an educational curriculum.
“If it stays up without [context], it’s problematic. If it stays up with an educational component, it might be helpful for people,” she said. “It opens up the discussion we need to have in this country.”
Galeria de la Raza Executive Director Ani Rivera said that she is not necessarily in favor of removing the mural, but also argued that it is missing context that should be given through the voices of the oppressed.
“Murals are a part of public art that should be protected..that’s why it’s such a complicated issue for folks,” said Rivera. “I don’t necessarily think they should be erased…but context is what really matters in this day and age. I think this is a bigger issue with monuments that historically in this country are so out of touch with what we are actively fighting against.”
Opponents of the mural maintain that its imagery traumatizes black and brown students attending the school by paying homage to an unsavory chapter in American history. The mural depicts George Washington and other white settlers towering over a dead Native American and slaves working in fields.
As a Native American parent of a George Washington High School senior, Anderson said that she has long engaged her son in conversations about the stereotypes that she says are perpetuated by the mural.
“There is an American Indian person with a scalp on his belt there. There’s a savage on the other wall,” said Anderson. “He was noticing these new details and we talked about how it made him feel — the guns, swords, the stereotypes of indigenous people that came up a lot and of course the violence of [a Native American] lying shirtless on the ground.”
Anderson, while supportive of the school board’s decision, said there is room for discussion about the mural’s future within the school.
“I showed up today. I decided that showing up is to show people that I love my son and all of the kids that are saying ‘enough is enough,’ and that I care enough to ask for change,” she said. “I’ll stay in the conversation as long as this conversation needs to happen.”
— Kevin N. Hume (@KevinNHume) August 1, 2019