Artists behind Coit Tower murals deserve praise

Two years ago, the people of San Francisco took a monumental step to protect the city landmark called Coit Tower and its famous New Deal-era fresco murals. In June 2012, San Francisco voters approved a historic ballot measure that required The City to take action to protect Coit Tower and its famous fresco murals from falling into further decay and disarray.

Despite a well-funded opposition campaign led by short-sighted individuals who attempted to portray efforts to preserve Coit Tower as some elitist crusade, voters from every section of The City voted to keep Coit Tower open to the public, rather than closed for private events, and to prioritize funds generated from visitors for its preservation. We are so encouraged that the people of this entire city recognized the value of this special place, and we are absolutely thrilled that their votes led to the $1.7 million Coit Tower restoration project that is nearing completion. We will be cheering when the doors to Coit Tower reopen in the next few weeks so the public can once again see Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s gift to San Francisco in all its glory.

However, it is troubling that so little attention has been paid in the news releases and media coverage about the Coit Tower renovation to the 25 artists without whom the murals would never have existed in the first place.

They are the four women and 21 men who worked efficiently and cooperatively in the first six months of 1934 to cover 3,691 square feet of the interior walls of Coit Tower with the first public works of art funded under the New Deal. Against the tumultuous backdrop of the Great Depression, and with a massive general labor strike taking place in San Francisco at that very moment, these 25 artists were nonetheless able to view San Francisco and California through a prism of optimism. With the broad charge to create art depicting the theme of “Life in California,” the Coit Tower painters brought their very different backgrounds, perspectives and skills to work every morning to blend the reality on the streets they saw and the hopeful future they believed in into 22 fresco murals and five oil paintings that are so collaborative many people mistakenly believe they were all created by a single artist.

Identifying the artists is important, because they were individuals who worked hard to practice their craft with results that have enlightened generations of visitors to Coit Tower and illustrated the immeasurable and lasting benefits that publicly funded art can produce. Furthermore, we have uncovered some fascinating documents from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art that record the details of the Coit Tower art project, down to the exact amount each artist was paid for his or her contribution. According to the original Coit Tower project papers stored at the Archives of American Art, the entire mural project cost just $26,022, which was entirely paid for by federal funds through the Public Works of Art Project and supplemented by the State Emergency Relief Administration. The city of San Francisco paid nothing and got the murals for free.

The individual Coit Tower artists were paid approximately $1 per hour for the mural project — each artist earned an average of $639 for creating these historic artworks — and completed the job on budget and on schedule. Who the artists were and what they did before and after coming together for the Coit Tower mural project is a fascinating and colorful story. Here, we simply want to introduce the master artists who created the frescos at Coit Tower and encourage all interested to find out more.

The Coit Tower painters were Maxine Albro, Victor Arnautoff, Jane Berlandina, Ray Bertrand, Ray Boynton, Ralph Chesse, Rinaldo Cuneo, Ben Cunningham, Mallette Dean, Parker Hall, Edith Hamlin, George Harris, William Hesthal, John Langley Howard, Lucien Labaudt, Gordon Langdon, Jose Moya del Pino, Otis Oldfield, Frederick Olmsted Jr., Ralph Stackpole, Suzanne Scheuer, Edward Terada, Frede Vidar, Clifford Wight and Bernard Zakheim.

We thank these talented artists, along with Lillie Hitchcock Coit, for the beautiful gift they gave to every San Franciscan and to countless visitors from around the world. And we are so grateful to the people of San Francisco for taking action by voting for Proposition B in 2012 to ensure that the Coit Tower murals are restored, protected and once again made available for free for all to see for years to come.

Ruth Gottstein is the daughter of Coit Tower artist Bernard Zakheim and the publisher of “Coit Tower San Francisco: Its History and Art.” Jon Golinger is the founder of Protect Coit Tower.

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