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SF voters may decide outcome of high school mural outrage

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Plan to paint over Russian artist Victor Arnautoff’s painting on hold for now

A painting of George Washington depicting gray-toned figures of soldiers who are marching into the wilderness with guns over their shoulder, stepping over the body of a dead Native American man.
One of the contentious WPA murals.
Photo courtesy of the Coalition to Protect Public Art

San Francisco’s George Washington High School remains the picture of unrest over questions about what to do with some of its historic yet divisive murals.

On October 11, Jon Golinger, founder of the Coalition to Protect Public Art, sent a letter to San Francisco Board of Education President Stevon Cook saying that a planned 2020 voter initiative may decide the fate of the school’s Life Of Washington paintings.

His group wants to move forward to qualify an initiative for the November 2020 ballot that “will prevent public funds from being used to destroy, censor, or prohibit public access to public art at George Washington High School,” Golinger told Cook.

He said that his group, now in the process of drafting legal language, will collect signatures in February in order to make it to the ballot box later that year.

Earlier this month, a group of George Washington High School alumni slapped the SF school district with a lawsuit over attempts to remove the Depression-era murals, calling them “a protected cultural, aesthetic, historic, and educational resource.”

The group demanded that the district “leave the murals the way they have been standing.”

In June, the school board voted to paint over the scenes by Russian artist Victor Arnautoff, ceding to decades of complaints that some of the images depicting the life of the United States’ first president are racist and insensitive.

But after mural backers launched a preservation campaign and deluged the district with complaints, board members reversed their decision on a 4-3 vote in August and decided instead just to cover up the images at a cost of nearly $900,000.

Cook called it a compromise to make sure “all students feel safe, seen, and supported.”

Neither Golinger nor the alumni were impressed by the secondary decision, asking that the full WPA artwork remain on display untouched.