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Voters may decide whether to save or destroy historic murals

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Locals push to preserve controversial 1936 WPA art at SF high school

A grassroots group called the Coalition to Protect Public Art is rallying to put up a ballot measure to overturn the San Francisco Unified School District’s decision to paint over divisive Works Progress Administration -era murals at George Washington High School in the Richmond District.

Billing itself a coalition of “artists and art organizations, educators, free speech and anti-censorship advocates, New Deal advocates, former students of the school, historic preservationists, and diverse San Franciscans,” the group, helmed by frequent San Francisco gadfly Jon Golinger, protests the June board vote to begin the process of destroying the circa-1936 scenes on the walls of the school’s administrative building.

“We are also supporting and advocating for a wide range of alternative options to increase education, provide mural context for viewers, create more art, and provide students and others a choice to decide for themselves whether or not to view art,” says the group.

Golinger tells the San Francisco Examiner that the actual legislation is still being drafted.

According to the Department of Elections, most of the deadlines for new ballot measures in SF have already passed for the upcoming November election.

However, the school district must complete environmental review of its plan to do away with the murals and then schedule future votes on its contents, so there’s time for Golinger et al. to collect sufficient signatures for next year’s ballots.

(The city’s qualifying measures guide says that supporters must get signatures equal to “ten precent of the votes cast for all candidates for Mayor at the most recent municipal election for Mayor”—18,970 in the case of this year’s election).

Russian artist Victor Arnautoff painted the 1,600-square-foot biographical mural, Life of Washington in 1936. In keeping with Arnautoff’s leftist politics, he included scenes protesting the former U.S. president’s history as a slaveowner and depicting Washington as culpable in the country’s violent expansion into native tribal lands.

But now critics of the work call Arnautoff’s images racist in and of themselves. In June, the school board voted unanimously to paint over the entire piece in deference to complaints.