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Santa Monica Arts Commission Looks to Middle Ground in Debate Over City Hall Mural


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By Niki Cervantes
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September 20, 2017 -- With an eye to compromise, the Santa Monica Arts Commission on Monday opened discussion on calls to remove a 1930s City Hall mural depicting Native Americans kneeling before Spanish Conquistadors and opened a debate on an accompanying mural.

No action was taken on the mural, which has been at the center of a controversy reignited this month when Hispanic activists renewed their call for its removal ("Protesters Renew Call for Removal of Santa Monica City Hall Mural," September 11, 2017)

After two hours of discussion, the commission opted to continue the mural item to its October meeting, members said.

City Hall Mural Recreation
Recreation mural by Stanton Macdonald-Wright (Courtesy City of Santa Monica)

In considering whether to support removing the mural or to side with preservationists who believe it should remain untouched, Commission Chair Mike Myers said talk turned toward finding “something in between.”

Myers said it is important to view the mural as a product of its time.

Created by Santa Monica-born artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright, the mural has been on the west wall in the City Hall foyer since the historic structure’s completion in 1938-39.

It was authorized under the Works Project Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression, a key component of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign to put Americans back to work as the country struggled in the Great Depression.

“We definitely want to work to contextualize it,” Myers said of the eleven-member commission, which is advisory. “Taking it down doesn’t change the fact that it was there.”

He said the panel wants to honor the mural as a part of the WPA/Great Depression era, but also understands the criticism of it now as expressing racist attitudes about Native Americans.

“There must be something that respects and honors” the different sides in the debate, he said.

Phil Brock, another commissioner, said he started the meeting in favor of retaining the mural but left that evening with mixed feelings.

Detail of Recreation Mural in City Hall He said he’s not particularly impressed with the mural across the foyer from the one which is stirring debate.

Also created by Macdonald-Wright, the mural extends from the west wall to the south and portrays Santa Monica in the 1930s, mostly as Anglos enjoying such pursuits as polo, tennis, sailing and racing.

Not entirely accurate, he noted, for a city populated increasingly of factory workers at the time. Certainly not accurate for the two prior generations of his family who lived in Santa Monica and were primarily grocers.

“My grandfather was not out playing polo,” he said.

He said the murals are landmarked because City Hall is so designated, and thus cannot be removed without approval from the City Landmarks Commission and, in the end, the council.

Options discussed were explaining the mural’s history in more detail, as well as delving more completely into the 1500s, when Spanish explorers discovered the area.


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