The Fight to Save the Arnautoff Murals
at George Washington High School

“Life of Washington”
The murals are painted on 12 panels, measuring 1600 square feet

Join our campaign to save the historic WPA murals at the George Washington High School in San Francisco. The members of the SF School Board have voted on June 27 to destroy the murals. The Guardian, the New York Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle have reported that the destruction of the 1,600-sq-ft New Deal-era murals would cost at least $600,000. Hiding the artwork would cost up to $825,000. Please consider joining our letter-writing campaign and writing to the members SF School Board to express your concern about this loss of public art and erasure of the past—albeit a painful depiction of our nation’s history.

What you can do:

Help preserve New Deal art history by donating to the SAVE THE MURALS FUND, the George Washington High School Alumni Association’s campaign to save the murals from destruction.

SAVE THE MURALS FUND: https://mkt.com/sfgwhsalumni

Write to the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission. You can find the Commissioners’ contact information here: https://sfplanning.org/historic-preservation-commission.

Write to the SF School Board. You can find the Board members’ names and email addresses here: http://www.sfusd.edu/en/about-sfusd/board-of-education/overview-and-members.html

Some parents and students at the school believe that two of Arnautoff’s 13 murals “glorify” racism. One controversial panel depicts slaves and the other shows Washington pointing westward over a murdered Indian. Art historians and the school’s alumni association interpret these as the artist’s condemnation of both slavery and the myth of so-called Manifest Destiny.

The destruction of these murals would be a significant loss for the public. Commissioned by the Federal Art Project, the George Washington High School murals belong to all Americans. Art historians have argued that the artist’s intent was, in fact, critical of national mythology, rather than condoning racism. Thus, the murals illuminate America’s history and hold valuable lessons. We believe that informative signage installed on site would offer an opportunity to make visible, rather than accept the historical injustices of Colonial America. History  should not be erased.  The National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington DC has displays devoted to a discussion of slavery. The Holocaust Museum is dedicated to educating about genocide so that people will “never forget,” what happened.  The Choctaw Cultural Center educates visitors about the “Trail of Tears.” The George Washington High School can deliver the same message.

SF Chronicle Reports: “Feinstein on SF mural flap: Don’t destroy it, don’t cover it up”

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Sen. Dianne Feinstein told the San Francisco School Board that to cover up the George Washington High School Mural would be “to deny our past and to fail our students.” Read the San Francisco Chronicle story here. Photo: Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle.

Photo: GWHS Alumni Association / Tammy Aramian

“We’re Getting These Murals All Wrong,” By Robin D.G. Kelley

Robin D. G. Kelley is a Professor of American History at UCLA and is completing a book on journalist Grace Halsell.

In a piece for The Nation titled, “We’re Getting These Murals All Wrong,” Robin D.G. Kelley makes a case for using the Arnautoff murals to reflect on the specter of white supremacy in America’s democratic tradition. Kelley, major African-American scholar and critic of white supremacy, also unpacks American progressivism and its ineffectiveness in tackling inequality. He concludes the piece by focusing on how the School Board used the concept of “reparations” to explain the high cost of the murals’ removal.

“I find it ironic that Mark Sanchez, the vice president of the school board, used the word “reparations” to describe the $600,000 cost of the Arnautoff murals’ erasure. In doing so, he not only perverts the concept of reparations but also fails to see that precious funds that could have been invested in arts education or an anti- racist curriculum will be used to cover up a work that actually makes a powerful case for reparations by revealing how white liberty and the wealth of the new nation were built on slavery, colonialism, dispossession, and genocide. Certainly, students can learn this in their classrooms, and they can see it in the streets of San Francisco as rising rents and corporate land grabs continue to displace poor black and brown people in the city.”

German Media Reports on the George Washington High School Controversy

Several German media outlets have published stories about the struggle to conserve the Victor Arnautoff mural at the George Washington High School in San Francisco. 

https://www.spiegel.de/lebenundlernen/schule/san-francisco-streitet-ueber-fresken-mit-george-washington-sklaven-und-ureinwohnern-a-1282485.html

https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/heute/bilder-spalten-san-francisco-streit-um-us-gemaelde-mit-sklaven-100.html

https://www.t-online.de/nachrichten/ausland/usa/id_86288404/san-francisco-streitet-ueber-historische-wandgemaelde-in-schule.html

New York Times Reports: “San Francisco School Board Votes to Hide, but Not Destroy, Disputed Murals”

Read the story here.

SF School Board Reverses Decision to Destroy Life of Washington Mural

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the SF school board reversed its decision to paint over the Victor Arnautoff mural the George Washington High School. Instead, they Board decided to obscure the mural from public view. Read the story here. Photo: Photo: Eric Risberg, Associated Press.

Statement of Coalition to Protect Public Art on proposed new SF Board of Education Resolution Regarding SF Washington High School Murals

For Immediate Release:  August 9, 2019Contact:  Jon Golinger, (415) 531-8585

Statement of Jon Golinger, Executive Director of the Coalition to Protect Public Art, on the proposed new SF Board of Education Resolution Regarding the 
SF Washington High School Murals 

Friday, August 9, 2019 If this proposal is adopted at Tuesday’s Board meeting as proposed, we will applaud the decision by the School Board not to proceed with the destruction of these unique and historic murals.  It will be a positive step forward for the School Board to recognize that irreversibly destroying this important work of public art is the wrong course of action.  While we are open to a wide range of reasonable options to address the concerns that have been raised, we will continue to oppose putting up an impenetrable barrier that blocks anyone from ever seeing these important works of art.  It’s critical that any solution include a way for the murals to be made available for students, teachers, and others to view them for educational purposes.  We also are ready to work with the School Board to support the creation of new murals from different perspectives and to develop an educational curriculum and materials that will put these historic murals in context and use them for educational purposes.  We look forward to participating in cooperatively creating that result.
See the proposed resolution at:  https://go.boarddocs.com/ca/sfusd/Board.nsf/goto?open&id=BDLBWW2678D6

PRESS RELEASE: S.F. School Board President Stevon Cook Proposes Solution to Dispute Over Controversial Mural

PRESS RELEASE  
For Immediate ReleaseCONTACT: Laura Dudnick  
Office: (415) 241-6565  
Cell: (415) 730-0314  
Email: [email protected]
S.F. School Board President Stevon Cook Proposes  
Solution to Dispute Over Controversial Mural
“Life of Washington” Mural Could be Preserved by Covering Over It to Make Way for New, Positive ArtworkSan Francisco (August 9, 2019) – The San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education President Stevon Cook said he will introduce a solution at the school board meeting on August 13 that will preserve the controversial “Life of Washington” mural by covering it without destroying it. “I am pleased to propose this solution to the controversy over the objectionable content depicted in the mural,” said School Board President Stevon Cook.  “I am introducing a vote at our next regular Board of Education meeting to cover-over the mural with panels or another similar treatment, which will preserve the artwork and not destroy it.  This should satisfy those who were concerned about the possible destruction of art.” He said it is important to note that there are strong passions on both sides of the debate. “Where we all agree is that the mural depicts the racist history of America, especially in regards to African Americans and Native Americans.  It is important that we all share the agreement and acknowledgement of racism, discrimination, and the dehumanizing of people of color and women in American history,” Cook said. “Without harming this artwork we want to see something in its place that shows the heroism of people of color in America, how we have fought against, and continue to battle discrimination, racism, hatred, and poverty,” he said. “I can’t tell you what image ought to be on the walls of Washington High School, but it should be one that inspires young people, not one that dehumanizes them.” Earlier this year the District convened an 11-member community advisory committee (CAC) to address longstanding public concerns over objectionable content depicted in the 13-panel “Life of Washington” mural, located in the administration building at George Washington High School.  

The controversial mural, commissioned by the U. S. Government in 1936 under a New Deal era art program, was painted using the fresco technique by the late Victor Arnautoff. Fresco mural painting is done on wet plaster; once the plaster dries, the mural becomes a permanent, integral part of the wall it was painted on. The CAC supported permanently removing the offensive content of the mural. In recent months, numerous community members, art historians and local preservationist have voiced their concern over the District’s intention to paint over the murals. Now, the Board will consider a resolution at its next meeting on August 13 at 6:00 p.m. that authorizes staff to develop a project, assessing a range of alternatives, for the purposes of CEQA review that removes from public view the Arnautoff Mural at George Washington High School using solid panels or equivalent material. The mural will be digitized as well, so that art and art historians can access it, but it will no longer be on public view at the school.  

The New York Times Reports that San Francisco School Board May Keep George Washington Mural

Read the story here.

Tuesday (08/06/19) 10:30AM News Conference 

Doctor Amos C. Brown (Chairman of Religious Affairs, President of San Francisco NAACP) will be joined Northern California NAACP Branch Officer Rev. Arnold G. Townsend, Vice President, Alfred Williams President and Chairman of Directors of The San Francisco African American Historical & Cultural Society. Noah Griffin newspaper columnist, jazz singer and former George Washington High School Student Body President, Treasure Island Development Authority Board of Director Linda Fadeke Richardson and Dewey Crumpler | Associate Professor of Painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and the African American artist chosen by the Black Panthers in mid 1960to create an alternative mural display, one that depicts African American, Latino and Asian Americans struggling against oppression. Announcement:

  1. AMOS BROWN & SAN FRANCISCO AFRICAN AMERICAN LEADERS  

VOICE SUPPORT FOR WASHINGTON HIGH MURAL

The new America: Those who yell loudest win

By Willie Brown, Opinion, July 13, 2019, San Francisco Chronicle

“Victor Arnautoff’s Depression-era mural at Washington High School has sparked noisy protests.”

Can Students Be Traumatized By Art?

“San Francisco’s “progressive” school board is embarrassing itself by choosing to destroy a WPA mural.” Public Seminar, July 2, 2019

By Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College.

Living New Deal Project Historian Brent McKee and Carol Denney created a cartoon that provides a critical reflection on the George Washington High School murals controversy.

If you have comments on this issue, go to our News page entry here.