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Council Takes Up Controversial City Hall Mural

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By Jorge Casuso

May 10, 2021 -- A historic 82-year-old City Hall mural that depicts Spanish Conquistadors standing before kneeling Native Americans could be veiled and eventually removed under an item the City Council will take up on Tuesday.

Coouncilmembers Ocscar de la Torre, Phil Brock and Christine Parra are asking the Council to consider the move as "part of the City’s efforts to eliminate and mitigate the vestiges of white supremacy and racial injustice in the City of Santa Monica."

City Hall muarl
City Hall Mural (Photo courtesy City of Santa Monica)

De la Torre first mounted the effort to remove the image from Stanton Macdonald-Wright's large mural in the lobby of City Hall in 2015, calling it “the Santa Monica Confederate Flag.”

"It's an outdated image," said de la Torres, who was elected to the Council along with Parra and Brock last November.

"We need to have public art that reflects the modern thinking about the City's diversity that makes us a vibrant community and to address the concerns that relate to the genocide of native peoples."

The mural by Santa Monica-born artist Macdonald-Wright has decorated the west wall in the City Hall foyer since the historic structure’s completion in 1938-39.

In June 2016, it became a symbol of racism for protesters angered by the City's move to de-fund the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC), which was founded and operated by de la Torre ("Activist Calls City Hall Mural of Kneeling Native Americans Santa Monica's Confederate Flag," June 25, 2015).

Two years later, the battle over the mural escalated, with opponents launching a petition drive to remove the mural.

The controversy got a hearing before both the Landmarks and Arts commissions but the Council never decided the issue ("Mural at Santa Monica City Hall Gets Airing as Petition for Its Removal Circulates," September 15, 2017).

The item on Tuesday's agenda asks the Council to direct staff to cover the mural with "a temporary artistic scrim" and "to begin recontextualizing the mural."

The City will then "initiate a community engagement and education process around the representations depicted in the mural," the Council members wrote.

"This process will include engaging an artist to recontextualize the mural with artwork that does not whitewash our past."

Instead, the new artwork would celebrate "the diverse history of Santa Monica’s people, culture and its renewed commitment to acknowledging the movement for equity, justice and respect for all."

De la Torre said he believes the controversial image merits preserving in a different venue -- such as the Bergamot Arts Center or a museum -- that doesn't carry the symbolic weight of the entrance to the City's seat of power.

"We're not destroying the mural, we're saving it," de la Torre said, "but we're changing the face of City Hall and providing an opportunity to place the mural in a place that's more appropriate.

"This ensures we protect the art, but we get to choose a better image that reflects our values as a community," he said.

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