A vote by the San Francisco Unified School District to destroy a circa-1936 mural by Russian artist Victor Arnautoff depicting the life of President George Washington has prompted protest from hundreds of artists and academics.
The 1,600-square-foot mural, Life of Washington, covers the walls of an administration building at George Washington High School in the Outer Richmond.
The Depression-era work has long attracted criticism for two scenes depicting Washington’s history as a slave owner and supporter of violent American expansion into native tribal areas. Amidst a new swell of criticism characterizing Arnautoff’s art as racist, district board members unanimously voting in June to paint over the entire work.
In response, the editors of Nonsite, a peer-reviewed online journal, published an open letter decrying the decision, calling the mural “an important work of art, produced for all Americans under the auspices of a federal government seeking to ensure the survival of art during the Great Depression.”
Critiquing the complaints about the mural’s content—which Arnautoff intended to criticize Washington—the letter says: “On this account, a Russian immigrant cannot denounce historical wrongs by depicting them critically. On this account, only members of the affected communities can speak to such issues and only representations of history that affirm values they approve are suitable for their communities. On this account, representing historical misdeeds is degrading to some members of today’s student body.”
Over 500 people signed Nonsite’s missive, which states, “The undersigned oppose the school board’s decision and the wrong-headed approach to art and to history that lie behind that decision” and pressing the board to preserve the murals.
Most of the signature are from artists or faculty at schools like Stanford, Mills College, UC Berkeley, and the New York Academy of Art. Some names are identified with more humble laurels, such as librarians or simply parents of Washington High students.
Despite the board vote, the destruction of the mural is not immediately pending. First the district must commission an environmental impact report and then schedule future votes over its findings. Initial estimates put the cost of the mural removal at approximately $600,000.
During the June hearing preceding the vote, Paloma Flores, the school district’s Native American education program coordinator, dismissed defenses of the mural, saying, “No one has the right to tell us as native people—or our young people who walk those halls everyday—how they feel. You’re not in those shoes.”