The San Francisco Board of Education voted Tuesday to paint over a mural depicting scenes in the life of George Washington at a high school bearing his name after an advisory board said the artwork doesn’t represent the school’s values.
Preservationists have argued for months with those offended by the New Deal-era mural. The artwork at George Washington High School shows the nation’s first president standing over a dead Native American man and also includes an image of an enslaved African American person.
Painted in 1936 by Victor Arnautoff, a native of Russia and protege of muralist Diego Rivera, the mural at the 2,000-student public school was commissioned by the Federal Art Project — a New Deal program to fund visual arts.
Parts of Arnautoff’s 13-panel mural, such as an image of Washington standing over a dead Native American as he directs white frontiersmen, seem critical of U.S. imperialism and capitalism.
Arnautoff, a Communist Party member in the 1930s who was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, returned to the Soviet Union before his death in 1979.
However, after an advisory group recommended the mural be removed in February, the school board unanimously approved a motion Tuesday to paint over it or “develop a project that removes the mural from public view using solid panels or equivalent material.”
Board Vice President Mark Sanchez, who brought the motion, said removing the mural from view, no matter what the artist’s intentions, would serve as a “fresh start.”
“It’s always an issue when anyone wants to remove or cover or displace art,” he said. “But there are countervailing issues we had to look at as well. We believe students shouldn’t be exposed to violent imagery — that it’s degrading.”
In an email, school board spokeswoman Laura Dudnick said staff will do a “deeper analysis” of the mural over the summer and report back to the board on options. According to school board documents, it cannot be removed because it was painted on wet plaster.
“Once the plaster dries, the mural becomes a permanent, integral part of the wall it was painted on,” the documents said.
Joely Proudfit, chairwoman of the American Indian Studies department at California State University at San Marcos, who met with the advisory group, praised the decision.
“It is time to erase the dominant narrative of the dead and defeated Native American,” she wrote in an email. “It is important that our public schools are a place for all students to learn and be educated in a safe environment.”
Lope Yap Jr., vice president of the Washington High School Alumni Association and a defender of the mural, said contentious public meetings on the subject had reached a “new low,” with those fighting Arnautoff’s work accusing preservationists of white supremacy.
Those who wished to destroy the mural, he said, didn’t understand its intent — to criticize genocide, not glorify it.
“Are you going to change the name of Washington state?” he said. “Are they giving out explosives to blow up Mount Rushmore?”
Robert W. Cherny, a professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State University and an Arnautoff biographer, said he was unsure of the fate of other panels in the mural that community members didn’t object to, including a ceiling panel depicting the sun and a rainbow.
If all the panels are to be removed and Arnautoff’s intent is to be disregarded, he said, the school board should recognize it voted to cover up a rainbow during a time when the city is celebrating LGBT pride.
“This is the beginning,” he said. “I think San Francisco is on a slippery slope.”