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Council Votes to Cover Historic Mural in City Hall Lobby

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By Jorge Casuso

May 14, 2021 -- For the first time in more than 80 years, visitors to Santa Monica City Hall will not be able to clearly view a historic mural depicting Santa Monica's history.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted 6 to 1 to cover with a woven scrim the panels depicting Native Americans kneeling before Spanish conquistadors, giving the community time to debate the mural's future.

City Hall mural depicting naming of Santa Monica City Hall mural depicting upscale lifestyle
Murals in City Hall lobby Stanton Macdonald-Wright (Courtesy of the City)

It also included in the motion covering another mural in the lobby depicting Anglos enjoying polo, tennis, sailing and auto racing, which are viewed as the pursuits of the white privileged class.

The debate over the historic mural is "part of the City's efforts to eliminate and mitigate the vestiges of white supremacy and racial injustice in the City," said the item placed on the agenda by the three newest Councilmembers.

The woven scrims will still allow viewers a glimpse of the images, while at the same time giving the City "an opportunity to put other images forward" during what should be a "robust debate," said Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, who introduced the item.

The mural created by renown Santa Monica artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright -- which stretches from the top of the lobby benches to the towering ceiling -- "has value," de la Torre said.

"Some think it’s beautiful art," said de la Torre, who began protesting the mural in 2015, calling it Santa Monica's Confederate Flag.

"I personally like the art," he said. "I just feel that it’s very problematic" having it "within the walls of our government."

Options that have been floated include everything from relocating the panels to a different venue, such as a museum, and replacing them with new artwork, to placing a plaque that puts the images in their historic context.

Historic preservationists have said opponents are misrepresenting the image, which was created in 1938-39 as part of City Hall, which is a historic landmark.

In the image, the Native Americans are revealing a natural spring to the Spaniards in a depiction of the legend of the naming of Santa Monica ("Historian Says Activist Misinterpreting Santa Monica City Hall Mural as Racist," June 30, 2015).

Mayor Sue Himmelrich said she has received calls from preservationists who believe the mural should be preserved and a plaque added to give the work context.

Brock, who served on the Arts Commission, said it may not be possible to move the mural, which is painted directly on the wall.

It is "impossible to remove it without destroying it," Brock said.

He noted that both the stream depicted in the historic mural and the setting for the rich enjoying an exclusive lifestyle are not within the city.

Councilmember Christine Parra, who joined de la Torre and and Brock in sponsoring the item, noted that the mural was created "when the city was being redlined."

She also noted that the Native Americans depicted in the mural appear to be subservient and that their eyes are not shown, making them appear faceless.

"I think that we can do better," Parra said, "and I really am looking forward to community engagement about how we can address this, whether it’s a plaque, an explanation, whatever it may be."

Councilmember Kevin McKeown, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he didn't believe the mural should be covered.

"Let’s look at our history with clear eyes and recognize the mistakes that were made, the tragedies that happened, the inequities," McKeown said, "but not hide it.

"Covering up the mural is the wrong way to start a discussion of how we should look at works of art in landmark buildings in 2021," McKeown said.

"And what we’re doing here is going down the path of obscuring and forgetting our past instead of changing the narrative and recontextualizing what’s on those walls."

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