By Thomas K. Pendergast
The San Francisco School Board’s abrupt change to its decision to cover some controversial murals with panels instead of paint has satisfied almost no one, but has also left opponents of the painting option scrambling to respond.
On Aug. 13, with a 4-3 vote, the board backed off a previous unanimous vote in June to cover the “Life of George Washington” murals with paint, thus permanently destroying the artwork. The new plan is to preserve them but cover them over with some kind of solid material.
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 warrior, with the first president 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 frescoes in the lobby area of George Washington High School as the building was completed 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 the school that is now at the center of an international news story because of the controversial murals.
A Russian immigrant who became a communist after studying art under the renowned muralist Diego Rivera, Arnautoff practiced “social realism” with his art, which often contained critical social commentary from a leftist point of view.
Those on the advisory committee calling for the destruction of the murals, however, say the artwork does not represent SF Unified School District “values” and that the depictions in the mural “glorify slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy and oppression.”
On June 25, the majority of the school board voted, with Commissioner Rachel Norton 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 could be much more and it could take up to three years to complete because an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) would be required.
Covering them with panels, however, would cost in the range of $645,000 to $825,000 and take about a year to complete.
At a press conference before the Aug. 13 meeting, board President Stevon Cook explained why he brought the issue before the board for another vote.
“After hearing much more input from the public and a lot of sentiment around being upset about destroying the art, I decided to bring the item back, which was essentially coming back to the initial recommendation from staff, which was to cover the murals instead of destroying them with paint,” Cook said. “I think we all agree that the murals depict a history of the country that is hard to see and everyone agrees that that history is racist. I think where we disagree is if it’s appropriate for a school site.
“Where I stand on the issue is that across all of our public schools, every name of our public schools, I want it to serve as an opportunity to inspire students, not dehumanize them.”
He also addressed efforts to bring the issue before San Francisco voters with a ballot measure in March of 2020, which, if passed, would take the decision completely out of the board’s hands.
”My understanding of the ballot measure was that it was a move against trying to destroy the art,” Cook explained. “My hope is that with this change we’ll keep that from going forward with the ballot measure.”
Cook said he understood that this move would not please those who wanted the murals painted over, nor would it please those who want to leave them uncovered. He added that the school board would not be debating the issue after the vote that night.
“As long as I’m president this will be the last time we discuss this item,” he said.
Cook said his vow not to bring the issue before the board again also applies to other controversial murals throughout the district.
After that meeting the parent who initiated the movement to paint the murals over, Amy Anderson, held her own press briefing outside the district headquarters.
“I’m not going away,” Anderson said. “I may take a little break to take care of myself emotionally…. As indigenous people, we’re not going away. This is not stopping for us. We’re going to stay in it until we see that social justice is truly a core value and that it is acted upon in this school district, and that the mural will, someday, be painted down.”
Jon Golinger, who is working on behalf of the Coalition to Protect Public Art (CPPA) to put the ballot measure before the voters, said they are currently reassessing the situation in light of the board’s recent decision.
“While it is certainly a step in the right direction to take destruction off the table, we will continue to strongly oppose spending $825,000 to permanently wall off the murals so no one has a choice to see them, debate them, learn from them again,” Golinger said. “Over the next few weeks we will evaluate the decision and decide how best to proceed.”
Meanwhile, at a meeting of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission on Aug. 21, there was talk about bringing a “landmark” designation for the high school back to the table for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Giving the school that status would complicate any move by the board to cover up the murals.
“Anything less than leaving them alone will be something not acceptable,” Lope Yap told the commission. “We would consider some other things but first they need to go back to square zero.”
Yap was the lone dissenting vote on the 11-person advisory committee set up last year when he voted against painting over the murals. He has been a leader of the opposition to destroy them. There were eight yes votes and two abstentions.
Commissioner Jonathan Pearlman noted that the board’s most recent decision only squeaked by with a 4-3 vote.
“Clearly there’s still a significant portion of the school board who believes that these should be destroyed,” Pearlman said. “It seems the school board is unwilling to educate about the murals that are just as relevant now as when they were painted. In this hyper-partisan, racially charged environment, these murals … are still relevant to discuss history and current events.”
Commissioner Kate Black said she understood how some students might be offended at “having to pass every day a visual reminder of one of the deplorable aspects of our country’s history.” But she drew a distinction between Confederate monuments and the murals.
“Monuments are intended to inspire and celebrate the exploits of a person,” Black said. “That’s their goal. That’s their purpose.
“By contrast, murals like this provide a narrative, a much more complete story that often contains the good and the bad of a particular period to remind and critically inform us of this period, or in the this case, the imperfect life of our first president.”
Historic Preservation Commission Vice President Diane Matsuda says that while she finds the murals offensive “as a person of color,” she still thinks they should be used to teach students.
“These kids are resilient enough to understand what’s right and what’s wrong,” Matsuda said. “Let’s make this a teaching moment.”
Whether or not the Board of Supervisors will reconsider giving the school landmark status is unclear, as Supervisor Aaron Peskin said he will not bring it before them. Plus two other supervisors, Shamann Walton and Matt Haney, were members of the school board last year when it initiated the effort to paint them over.
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