S.F. School Board Votes to Cover Controversial Mural Instead of Painting Over It

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The WPA-era mural by Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School depicts slave ownership and Native American genocide. (George Washington High School Alumni Association)

A controversial mural at a San Francisco high school is not going away quite yet after the San Francisco Unified School District's board reversed an earlier decision to paint over the mural in a 4-3 vote Tuesday night.

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The SFUSD Board meeting was packed, with attendees voicing opinions on the 13-panel mural at George Washington High School. At times things became heated with boos and shouting.

The 1,600 square-foot "Life of Washington" was painted by Victor Arnautoff in 1936, and depicts scenes from Washington’s life. One of the panels features Washington directing white men westward over the body of an apparently slain Native American. Another shows Washington among his slaves at Mount Vernon.

In June, the Board voted to paint over the mural. But SFUSD Board President Stevon Cook decided there should be another vote.

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"After hearing much more input from the public and a lot of sentiment around destroying the art, I decided to bring the item back," Cook said.

Cook admitted intensifying criticism made him reconsider.

“We did have outreach from people in favor of the decision, but we did get a lot of outreach from people against it ... those emails haven’t stopped,” Cook said.

The move came after critics insisted destroying the mural would amount historical censorship, and a loss to art.

Work will now begin to cover up the murals using solid panels instead of paint.

Arianna Antone-Ramirez, a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation and board member of the American Indian Cultural Center of San Francisco, said that while she’s glad the mural will be covered up, she’s frustrated by the reversal of the decision.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re back here in 20 years trying to advocate again to try to cover up this mural," Anton-Ramirez said. "I won’t be surprised if a future board of education takes the panel down."

Students returning to class next week will see the mural at least until a required environmental impact report is completed and the panels installed.

The cost to cover the mural is expected to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this post.