While a working group convened by the San Francisco Unified School District has voted in favor of removing a controversial mural inside the Richmond District’s George Washington High School, the federal government may still have a say in the matter.
Recent efforts by some members of the school board and the school’s students to remove the “Life of Washington” mural have made waves far beyond the school’s community. The 13-panel fresco installed in the school’s lobby since 1936 depicts, among other things, explorers standing over an apparent dead Native American and Washington standing next to slaves.
In an April 16 letter to SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews that was obtained by the San Francisco Examiner, federal General Service Administration Chief Architect Jennifer Gibson indicated that her staff is looking for documentation “indicating that the mural is the property of the federal government,” but so far hasn’t found any.
“It has come to the GSA’s attention from multiple sources that the mural is in danger of being painted over due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter,” wrote Gibson. She noted that GSA Fine Arts staff has “completed preliminary research” on the mural confirming that it was created under the Work Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Project by artist Victor Arnautoff, who was commissioned by the New Deal agency.
Gibson said that the agency’s investigations into the mural “will continue” and that it has been placed on a list “to be researched at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.”
Citing a “large number of inquiries” received from “concerned citizens,” Gibson requested that SFUSD keep the federal agency in the loop about “any decision you make regarding the mural.”
Gibson did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and it is unclear what course of action the agency would take should federal ownership be established.
Those calling for the mural to remain intact at the school hope for a delay, at the very least.
“We think that rushing just to have it done and the mural done away with wouldn’t be a healthy outcome for anyone,” said Jon Golinger, founder of Protect Coit Tower, adding that Gibson’s letter “demonstrates the national importance of this mural.”
“At a minimum the federal government is paying careful attention to what is happening here. Covering up the mural without alerting them won’t work,” he said. “By default one would assume the school owns the mural but there may be some paper trail. This may be the basis for federal intervention.”
In a letter sent to Matthews on Monday, Joy Garnett, an arts advocacy program associate with the National Coalition Against Censorship, requested that the mural be kept “in place” and that the district “provide additional context and programming around them.”
“Since the murals were created in fresco, their removal can only be achieved by the irreversible act of destroying them,” wrote Garnett. “NCAC strongly urges the district to consider the serious ramifications of the irreversible act of destroying an artwork, as well as the precedent it would set for other works installed in San Francisco public schools that could spark strong emotions in the future.”
But opponents of the mural say that efforts to protect it conflict with SFUSD’s mission, which is to put students’ needs first.
“I think the mural should be painted over. It’s offensive to many black and Native Americans,” said Stefan Goldstone, who graduated from George Washington High School. “A school is a place [where] students should feel comfortable going everyday to learn — is a school able to actually meet this mandate if a massive mural in the main hallway makes some students feel unsafe or disrespected?”
SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick confirmed Tuesday that after four public meetings held between December 2018 and February 2019, a majority of the district’s working group — comprised of local Native American community members, students, school and district representatives, local artists and historians — recommended that the mural be “archived and removed” because it does not “represent SFUSD values.”
“The majority of the group expressed that the main reason to keep the mural up at the school is focused on the legacy of the artist, rather than the experience of the students,” said Dudnick.
Matthews and SFUSD staff are currently reviewing the recommendation and “considering the best course of action,” said Dudnick, but added that the matter has not yet been scheduled to be heard by the school board.
School Board President Stevon Cook, who has called for the mural’s removal, said that he wants the district to have a plan by the end of the year.
In response to Gibson’s letter, he added that it is “not surprising that the advocacy around keeping [the murals]” has “reached this office. “
Cook said that while it is “prudent” to work through the legality of removing the mural, he remains committed to “following through with the recommendations of the committee.”
“There will be roadblocks, there already have been. I think the students that feel most impacted by the images are going to be proud that we are standing up for them,” Cook said.