george washington high school

Coalition Formed to Save GWHS Murals at the Ballot Box

By Thomas K. Pendergast

The San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) Board of Education’s decision to cover or destroy 13 murals in the “Life of Washington” series at the first president’s namesake high school has inspired those who support saving the murals to hire an attorney and to work on bringing the issue to the voters.


A section of one of the controversial murals at George Washington High School which depicts the president as a slave owner. Courtesy photo.

The recently formed Coalition to Protect Public Art (CPPA) is trying to put a ballot measure before the voters seeking to take the decision away from the school board. They are already claiming some local political heavy hitters as members of their advisory board.   

 “A ballot measure, we do think, is the most potent way to bring this to a conclusion and raise the profile of the issue beyond this mural alone since … the advocates for painting this mural over have already pledged to go after other murals in town next. So, rather than (deal with them) one site at a time, let’s deal with this all at one moment,” Jon Golinger said. 

It was Golinger who wrote a ballot initiative to save the New-deal murals in Coit Tower, which voters passed by a two-thirds majority in 2012. He has also been involved in putting other issues before the voters.

The mural supporters have to get nearly 9,500 signatures by Nov. 4 to qualify for the March 2020 election. Golinger said “hundreds of people” have already volunteered to gather signatures and more than 50 people have donated money to help get them.

The artwork is controversial because it includes images of Afro-American slaves that Washington owned and pioneers walking past the corpse of a First Nation (Native American) warrior, with him standing off to the side and pointing the way forward. Critics of the 83-year-old murals say these images do not belong in a high school because they traumatize some students.

Artist Victor Arnautoff painted the series of frescos in 1936, during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal-era. The project was funded through the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), which created many public schools and libraries throughout San Francisco and the nation, including building the Richmond District high school at the center of a national news story because of the controversial murals. A Russian immigrant who became a communist after studying art under the famous muralist Diego Rivera, Arnautoff practiced “social realism” with his art, which often contained critical social commentary from a leftist point of view. 

Those calling for the destruction of the murals, however, say they do not represent “SFUSD values” and that the depictions in the mural “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression.” 

On June 25, the school board voted unanimously, with one absent, to either paint over the murals or, if that takes too long, cover them up with panels. Painting over the murals would cost the district at least $600,000. With possible added legal fees, the cost may be much more. The paint approach might take up to three years to complete because an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) would be necessary.

Covering them with panels would cost in the range of $645,000 to $825,000 and take about a year because an EIR would likely not be required. 

“Truthfully I think it’s just an over-broad approach that speaks to the … understandably heated emotions around a few of the paintings and it’s caught up the rest of the murals that are really unrelated to the issues that were raised,” Golinger said.

He said mural supporters from the CPPA approached him because of his previous experience in putting together ballot measures.

Golinger claims their “advisory committee” includes some familiar names, like Matt Gonzalez from the public defender’s office; Rocco Landesman, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under President Barack Obama; former SF Mayor Art Agnos; artist Dewey Crumpler, who painted the “compromise” murals at the school in the 1970s; Robert Tamaka-Bailey of the Oklahoma Choctaw tribe; and Emil de Guzman the activist who defended the International Hotel in the 1970s.

The initiative is still being drafted and its scope is not yet defined. One option is to focus just on the “Life of Washington” murals. Another would be to include all New Deal murals in San Francisco that were paid for by the taxpayers. A third option would include all murals on public buildings in the City.

The ballot will likely only need a majority vote, not two-thirds, to pass if it involves no public money. Golinger elaborated that it will likely have a declaration of policy which would create guidelines for how future city officials should handle mural situations such as this. It might also include a provision that before any more such murals are to be destroyed, the decision would either have to go before the voters with another ballot measure or go before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the Arts Commission, which would have to ratify such a decision.

“In effect, creating a much more public process that would bring opportunities for a compromise beyond what occurred in this situation … hopefully finding other avenues short of destruction of art, which is permanent,” he said.

The EIR would likely be required to paint over the murals because of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which will take a minimum of a year to prepare, according to SFUSD staff. The CPPA has already retained the services of attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley, who represents public-interest groups in art preservation issues. 

Brandt-Hawley confirmed that her services have been retained for dealing with CEQA appeals and the like, but she declined to comment further. 

A winning ballot measure and CEQA legal challenges appear to be the only options left at the moment. 

The San Francisco Examiner reported that the federal government was looking into whether the 13 frescos that comprise “The Life of Washington,” which were created through the WPA’s Federal Art Project, actually belong to them. According to the Examiner, a letter sent in April to SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews from the chief architect of the federal General Services Administration’s (GSA) Jennifer Gibson, stated that they were researching whether or not the murals are federal property.

The GSA, however, now says that so far they have not identified any documentation indicating these murals are federal property. Furthermore, the GSA says the murals were never owned by them, nor have they ever been in their fine arts collection.

Mural supporters were also hoping that either or both the California Art Protection Act and the Visual Artists Rights Act might offer the murals some protection, but this seems unlikely since both of those acts only affect art created after these laws were enacted, in 1980 and 1991 respectively, and apparently do not offer protection retroactively. 

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