Murals at a San Francisco School Should Stay for Now, Judge Says
A California court this week ruled that Works Progress Administration-era murals of George Washington’s life at a local high school cannot be removed without an environmental review, thwarting plans by the San Francisco Board of Education to to cover up the highly controversial artwork.
Painted in the 1930s by Victor Arnautoff, Diego Rivera’s former assistant, the “Life of Washington” murals dominate the school entrance and have been the subject of debate for years. Critics, including parents and students, said high school students should not be forced to see racism in the depiction of murals of enslaved African Americans and Native Americans. They wanted the frescoes to be repainted. Proponents of the murals, including art historians, have said destroying them would be like burning books.
Arnautoff, who was a Communist, was born in Russia and taught at Stanford University. His murals depicted the first president as the owner of slaves and the young country as responsible for the murder of Native Americans. But the American Indian Parent Advisory Council and other school organizations said students shouldn’t be forced to see this story.
“When I look at the mural as a native of the Pacific Islands, I am hurt and offended,” Faauuga Moliga, vice president of the San Francisco Board of Education, wrote in a text. “I’m sure most of the people of color who saw the mural in Washington feel the same way I do.”
Two years ago, the school board decided to remove the murals from public view at George Washington High School, instead of painting on them, which the board had already voted on.
In October 2019, the George Washington High School Alumni Association then sued the board and school district on the potential removal of murals.
California Superior Court judge Anne-Christine Massullo on Tuesday said San Francisco officials must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, which was “enacted to protect California’s environmental and historic resources.” , and would not be authorized to remove the murals without first carrying out an environmental impact study.
Public officials must follow these procedures ”before a decision is made, ” Judge Massullo wrote in his decision.
The judge said a committee organized by the school board to examine the future of the murals made their decision before holding public meetings. “A PowerPoint presentation,” she wrote, “contained no reference to the conservation of the murals. “
The commission came in response to a lawsuit brought by the alumni group, which has been seeking to save the artwork for years, arguing that the murals offer an immersive history lesson.
Lope Yap Jr., vice president of the George Washington High School Alumni Association, said he knew the committee appointed by the school board “was predetermined to remove the murals.” He continued, “I am grateful that the judge agrees with this prospect.”
Mr. Moliga said that during the review, the feelings of the students and their parents should be taken into account. “I want an analysis done on how students and families in Washington are affected by the inclusion of mural painting in the school environment.”
When contacted for comment, Laura Dudnick, a spokesperson for the school district, said the school was getting ready for the fall semester and since the judge just made that ruling, “we haven’t have not had time to examine it in depth “.
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