Public Comment

Open Letter to the San Francisco School Board of Education about Arnautoff Mural

Carol Denney
Thursday June 20, 2019 - 03:47:00 PM

Victor Arnautoff, Russian emigre and New Deal artist assigned to depict George Washington's life, chose to depict the full story, that of George Washington as a slaveholder, and the push to expand westward as having deadly consequences for native peoples. Arnautoff's 1935 fresco represents one of the few examples of an artist's willingness to risk the consequences of telling the more honest, inclusive story of George Washington's role in American history.

It is certainly possible to view the depictions of exploitation as a promotion of exploitation. But Arnautoff's intent is unmistakable, as his own reflections on working on frescoes with renowned artist Diego Rivera makes clear, giving him, in his own words, "the belief that the making of art is not a matter of idle contemplation, it cannot leave the viewer indifferent. Its goal is to move people, to stimulate their thinking" and to see large public murals as "a weapon of ideas in the struggle for a new society, in the struggle for the future of mankind." 

While the mural at George Washington High School may technically belong to the school itself, the larger role it plays in San Francisco's art history and its early art scene both generally and with specific respect to the New Deal is a history with resonance for the whole county as we struggle for clarity about who we are and how we will face our path together, a path with no small amount of challenge regarding the racism of our past and our present, let alone our future. 

The students' and parents' engagement on this issue is phenomenal. But it is being mischaracterized as a united voice for the mural's destruction. At the school board hearing on June 18th, 2019, I heard many suggestions from both sides for appropriate signage and interpretation, for a native peoples' center for community study and engagement, for additional murals that carry forward the wealth of stories in the Bay Area of native peoples' and African-Americans' unique history and contributions. The effort by the current school board to channel this effort into a narrow option requiring the covering or destruction of Arnautoff's largest work seems peculiar in this light, especially considering the $375,000 to $600,000 in tax dollars required. 

I hope you can take the time to reflect on the broad range of possibilities for our community which could produce more murals, involve more students in their design, even to utilize the technique of frescoes to enhance public understanding of their unique qualities, which Arnautoff himself thought were dramatic. San Francisco is the place where art and politics famously tangle, famously dance, and famously produce more art, not less, often crafting a unique response to the pressures of the moment. My prayer is that this is one of those moments. 


The SFUSD school board meeting is this coming Tuesday, 5:00 pm, at 555 Franklin Street, near the Civic Center BART station, and there will be a demonstration in support of the mural's preservation out front.