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San Francisco Chronicle

Back at George Washington High

Last month I wrote about the controversy over murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco.

Those murals, painted by Victor Arnautoff as a New Deal project, depicted the life of George Washington without hagiography. Arnautoff devoted space to the oppression of slavery and the human cost of westward expansion. But showing subservient African-Americans and dead Native Americans raised objections from some students in the 1960s and today.

This spring, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously to budget $600,000 to permanently conceal the murals, most likely with a new coat of paint. People thought that money would cover an environmental study of the plan, the work itself, and anticipated legal battles.

News of the decision attracted attention across the country. The school was opened for public viewing this summer. Many artistic figures joined local preservationists and alumni in opposing the decision. Some fans of the murals started to organize a public vote to keep them. The board president and vice president defended their decision to, in their words, do away with “art that for more than 80 years has traumatized students.” There were few additional voices for removing the murals, however.

This month, the San Francisco school board took a second vote. By the slight margin of 4–3, they decided “to obscure the art with panels or similar materials rather than painting over it.” That would allow the panels to be taken off at some future time. Back in the spring, this remedy was expected to cost much more than the painting, but quite possibly the board had come to anticipate more legal costs.

Or perhaps the first vote was a strategy to test the fervency of the two sides. The Board of Education’s president controls its agenda. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted the current president saying he “always supported obscuring the mural rather than destroying it, although he voted to paint over it in June.” He doesn’t plan to allow a third vote during his term, which ends in December.

The school year will start soon. Given how municipal contracts work, I have no sense of how quickly the project of covering the murals will progress. At some point the board will choose its next president, and in 2020 the city’s voting public will elect a new Board of Education. The referendum on the murals appears to be still up in the air. This whole controversy could rise again—or quietly subside for another few decades.