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In San Francisco, a Panel Defends Controversial WPA Mural at George Washington High School

On Washington’s birthday, artists, community and Native American leaders, curators, and more talked about why Victor Arnautoff’s “Life of Washington” murals should remain.

John Learned, president of the American Indian Center of the Great Plains, speaking on a panel about the Life of Washington murals at San Francisco’s George Washington High School (image courtesy Steve Zeltzer/Labor Video Project)

SAN FRANCISCO — All nine panelists at an event organized by San Francisco’s George Washington High School Alumni Association agreed that the high school’s controversial 1936 mural, “Life of Washington,” by Work Progress Administration artist Victor Arnautoff should stay in the school’s lobby. Last June, the school board voted unanimously to paint over the 13 frescos, which show slavery and white settlers stepping over a dead Native American, at a cost of about $600,000 for taxpayers. After an outcry about destroying art, the school board voted four to three in August to instead cover the mural with panels.

On February 22, Washington’s birthday, the panelists talked about why the murals should remain. Matt Gonzalez, an artist, chief attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, and former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said it should be saved to show that Arnautoff, a communist who studied with famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, was part of the society of artists in the WPA trying to tell the truth about government. Robert Flynn Johnson, a curator emeritus from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, quoted Oscar Wilde saying that the only person who likes all art equally is an auctioneer, and said having the mural in a place young adults go to learn is ideal. Susan Cervantes, founder of the Precita Eyes Muralist Association, said the murals are “masterpieces” that should never be destroyed. John Learned from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe said he remembered having to use colored-only bathrooms growing up in Oklahoma and young people need to remember their elders’ history.

There were no local Native Americans on the panel. When someone in the audience remarked on this during the Q&A session, one of the moderators, John Rothman, president of the alumni association, said that Choctaw elder Tamaka Bailey had been invited, but wasn’t able to attend.

Panelists and moderators of forum on the Life of Washington murals at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts (image courtesy Steve Zeltzer/Labor Video Project)

The event started with clips of news footage about “Life of Washington.” These contained the afternoon’s only critiques of the mural — that it can be traumatizing for students to see every day and there are other ways to learn history. Arianna Antone-Ramirez, a board member of the American Indian Cultural Center of San Francisco, who first saw the murals as a teenager when she visited George Washington High School, is featured in the video saying that Native Americans are always portrayed as dead or as part of the past. The video also included prominent critics of covering the murals, such as writer Alice Walker, whose daughter went to Washington High, and actor Danny Glover, an alum.

Panelist Robert Cherny, author of Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art, said Arnautoff meant the mural as a critique of Washington and Manifest Destiny.

“To connect to California, he had Washington pointing west,” Cherny said. “Washington talked about the march of the white race from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Arnautoff did not celebrate that march.”

Controversy over the mural is nothing new. George Washington High School students protested it back in the 1960s, calling it racist and dehumanizing. Students convinced the school and San Francisco Arts Commission to hire Dewey Crumpler — who was just starting his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he’s now a professor — to paint a response mural, titled “Multi-Ethnic Heritage.”

At the talk on Saturday, Crumpler said he advocates for keeping both murals. While he at first thought the mural was offensive, today he thinks it’s a necessary part of history. Young people need to be confronted with discomfort, Crumpler said. He agreed with other panel members that there should be plaques by the murals to explain them — a decision he said was agreed to back in the ’60s when he painted his mural, but still hasn’t happened.

The alumni association has filed a lawsuit against the school board for its decision to cover up the murals. Supporters plan to put a measure on the November ballot that would keep the mural in the school and visible.

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