A California court ruled this week that Works Progress Administration frescoes depicting the life of George Washington cannot be removed from a local high school without an environmental assessment, thwarting the San Francisco Board of Education’s plans to end the hotly debated works of art cover up.
Painted in the 1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a former assistant to Diego Rivera, the “Life of Washington” murals dominate the school entrance area and have been controversial for years. Critics, including parents and students, have said that high school students shouldn’t be forced to see racism in the murals depicting enslaved African Americans and Native Americans. They wanted to paint over the frescoes. Mural supporters, including art historians, said destroying them would amount to burning books.
Arnautoff, a communist, was born in Russia and taught at Stanford University. His murals showed the first president as a slave owner and the young country as responsible for the murder of the Native Americans. But the American Indian Parent Advisory Council and other organizations at the school said students shouldn’t be forced to see this story.
“When I look at the mural as an indigenous Pacific Islander, I am hurt and offended,” wrote Faauuga Moliga, vice president of the San Francisco Board of Education, in a text. “I’m sure most of the colored people who saw the mural in Washington think the same as I do.”
Two years ago, the school board decided to remove the murals from the school’s public view instead of painting them over – which the board had voted for beforehand.
Then, in October 2019, the George Washington High School Alumni Association sued the board and the school district about their decision.
On Tuesday, Superior Court of California Justice Anne-Christine Massullo said that San Francisco officials must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, which was “enacted to protect California’s environmental and historical resources,” and that the school district would not do so allows the murals to be removed without first carrying out an environmental impact assessment.
Officials must follow these procedures “before a decision is made,” Judge Massullo wrote in her ruling.
The judge said members of a committee organized by the school board to examine the future of the murals had decided before organizing public gatherings. “A PowerPoint presentation,” she wrote, “did not contain a single hint to keep the murals.”
The order came in response to the lawsuit brought by the alumni group, who have been trying to save the artwork for years, arguing that the murals provide a full history lesson.
Lope Yap Jr., vice president of the George Washington High School Alumni Association, said he knew the school board’s appointed committee “was designed to remove the murals.” He continued, “I am grateful that the judge has agreed to this perspective.”
Mr Moliga said that he supports the environmental review, and that the feelings of the students and their parents should be taken into account. “I would like to see how students and families in Washington are impacted by the inclusion of the mural in the school environment.”
When asked for comment, Laura Dudnick, a school district spokeswoman, said the school is preparing for the fall semester and that since the judge just issued that ruling, “we haven’t had time to thoroughly review.”