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Mural Muddle: San Francisco School Board’s Lose-Lose Decision on Its WPA Art

In a close vote last night after a a reportedly contentious public discussion, San Francisco’s school board made plans to carry the donkey on its back: In a 4-3 decision that’s likely to satisfy no one, it elected to “remove the ‘Life of Washington’ mural from view by covering it without destroying it,” in the words of today’s press release.

The cost of covering the murals with acoustic panels “initially was estimated in June at $875,000,” according to Jill Tucker‘s report last night for the San Francisco Chronicle. Wouldn’t that money be better spent on education, not obliteration?

George Washington High School, San Francisco
Screenshot from
2010 video about plans for mural restoration there

In her lead paragraph, Tucker misleadingly stated that the school board had “reversed course” through its decision. Instead, it merely chose a different, less destructive (and mercifully, reversible) way of hiding the mural, as an alternative to the painted whitewash that was previously contemplated.

Unwittingly echoing the evocative title (“America Is Hard to See”) of the Whitney Museum’s 2015 inaugural installation in its downtown digs of its permanent collection of American art, School Board President Stevon Cook declared:

I think we all agree that the mural depicts a history of the country that’s hard to see [emphasis added].

True enough. But it’s exactly because students need to learn about the aspects of our history that are painful to look at that many in the community had strongly argued that the 12-panel mural’s warts-and-all depiction of “The Life of Washington” needed to remain on view at George Washington High School (GWHS). The mural’s defenders included Dewey Crumpler, associate professor of painting at the San Francisco Art Institute (whom I interviewed), whose own murals are on view at GWHS, and actor Danny Glover, who had attended GWHS and holds forth on its importance in a video embedded in Tucker’s piece.

As I wrote yesterday, I’m torn about this: If you visit a museum and think you may be traumatized by displays that depict painful subjects, you can choose not to view them. But for emotionally sensitive students, the powerful images that dominate their high school’s lobby and staircase are in their face every day. They’re unavoidable.

What’s not clear to me is why, after all these years, this controversy over the murals has again come to a boil. The Black Panthers were apparently satisfied with the alternative mural commissioned from Dewey Crumpler in 1969, which celebrated the creative energy of Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans.

Just nine years ago, the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) posted the video below, which celebrates plans for restoration of murals at the high school—a joint project by SFAC and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Maybe SFMOMA should lend a hand in solving the current mural muddle.)

Other works in this art-rich school include the sculptural relief seen at the bottom of the first image in this post—“Athletics,” 1942, by African American artist Sargent Johnson. And here are two murals in the high school’s library, as seen in SFAC’s 2010 video:

Library at George Washington High School, San Francisco
Screenshot from
2010 video about plans for mural restoration there
Library at George Washington High School, San Francisco
Screenshot from
2010 video about plans for mural restoration there

Are female students allowed to be traumatized by the Stackpole mural, above, which consigns girls to cooking and sewing, while boys get to tinker with electronics? That was the state of vocational arts in my own junior high school years—early ’60s. (I graduated first in my class, but flunked scrambled eggs—true story. My struggles with the sewing machine were similarly inept. Traumatic flashbacks…)

In this video, you’ll hear (at 4:30) then GWHS Principal Erika Lovrin state that she hoped to institute a student docent program, “so others can come in and look at the art that we have….As you really go through and learn about the artwork and what the artist was thinking about, the history comes alive. That’s the experience that we want to have for our students here.”

“The grandeur of these murals is fantastic,” as Lovrin stated. “Many students come in and they’re so proud of these murals. They say, ‘We’re so happy that they’re still here and they’re being preserved.'”

It would be nice if that enthusiasm could be rekindled with the spark of educational programs that illuminate the sins of the past and their relevance to the present, rather than hiding them in darkness, behind opaque walls. Failing that, maybe another public institution (SFMOMA?), with the help of a civic-minded donor, could take over custodianship of these murals, as suggested in my previous post.

There’s got to be a better way.

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