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SF school board votes to save Depression-era murals

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Reversal would cover up WPA works at George Washington High, but not destroy them

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 circa 1936 murals that critics object to, depicting violent American expansion into tribal lands.
Courtesy Coalition To Protect Public Art

On Tuesday the San Francisco School Board reversed a divisive June vote and decided to simply cover up the WPA murals at George Washington High School in the Richmond, rather than painting over them in a concession to longstanding complaints that the images are racist.

In a statement after the vote, School Board President Stevon Cook said, “I know this alternative is harmful to those who wanted to paint it over and there are people in the preservation community who think we’re going too far by covering the mural. Our schools need to be places where all students feel safe, seen and supported.”

Per the new vote, the school board is commissioning an environmental study about the feasibility of covering up the illustrations with “solid panels or equivalent material.”

The board also promises that the work by Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff will be digitized so that art historians can study it, “but it will no longer be on public view at the school.”

The vote was 4-3 in favor of changing the plan. Board members Mark Sanchez, Gabriela Lopez, and Alison Collins voted in the minority.

The previous June bid to nix the murals entirely had been unanimous, but Cook in particular had a change of heart in the meantime, introducing the new compromise measure last week.

Lopez accused other board members Tuesday of “not listening to students demanding the mural’s removal,” but couldn’t swing the vote.

The Life of Washington paintings depict America’s first president as a slave owner and architect of violent American expansionism, intended as a critique not just of Washington’s life but by extension all of American history.

However, for decades some students and staff have alleged that the murals themselves promote racist imagery of black slaves and Native Americans. An advisory panel recommended painting over the scenes earlier this year.

Ever since the June vote to permanently remove the murals, hundreds of outside critics defended Arnautoff’s work, including the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, whose president, Amos Brown, again spoke in its favor during Tuesday’s meeting, declaring, “Leave that mural alone.”

Actor Danny Glover, a graduate of George Washington High, told KTVU that he too wants to preserve the artworks.

In July, local gadfly Jon Golinger began working up a ballot measure to preserve the murals.

Golinger’s Coalition To Protect Public Art has not yet issued a statement on whether it will press to keep the murals on open display or back down now that they’re no longer in physical danger.