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City Hall Murals to Remain on View

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By Jorge Casuso

March 2, 2022 -- The historic murals in the City Hall lobby will remain on full view after the City Council last week voted not to cover them with "a temporary artistic scrim."

The move came after the Santa Monica Conservancy mounted a last-ditch campaign to stop the veiling of the two 83-year-old murals critics contend are "vestiges of white supremacy."

Councilmember de la Torre -- who pushed for covering the panels he has fought to remove from City Hall since 2016 -- changed course by placing an item on last Tuesday's agenda with Councilmember Christine Parra.

The agenda item -- which was approved unanimously -- directs staff to no longer cover the murals and "to instead direct staff to launch of a process that engages and educates our community."

"This is very inspiring to me because it was very contentious and we were kind of on opposite sides of the issue," de la Torre said, referring to the Conservancy.

"Through dialogue and relationship building and a series of conversations, we found a way forward," de la Trre said. "I think that's powerful."

The last minute compromise came nine months after the City Council voted 6 to 1 to cover the panels depicting Native Americans kneeling before Spanish conquistadors and Anglos participating in sports enjoyed by the white privileged class ("Council Votes to Cover Historic Mural in City Hall Lobby," May 14, 2021).

In an email to supporters in early February, the Conservancy argued that covering the murals for 18 to 24 months is "intrusive, unnecessary, and its censorship is contrary to the values of a city espousing a progressive agenda" ("Conservancy Mounts Last-Ditch Effort to Oppose Veiling Historic Murals," February 3, 2022).

"Is it not more practical to use scarce City funds for a collaborative long-term solution to interpret the murals?" the email asks. "Does it make sense to cover the murals while at the same time inviting public engagement to discuss them?"

The process approved by the Council last week would add artwork within the lobby "to create a more inclusive and complete story of our City's history and vision for our future to advance the City’s commitment to equity, justice and respect for all," according to the item.

In the interim, staff will explore "the creation of a temporary lobby display around the themes that will be explored during the larger community education and engagement process."

Conservancy officials greeted the Council's decision but noted staff's failure "to use the legal protections of our landmarks ordinance to acknowledge this potentially adverse action, and to refer this matter to the Landmarks Commission.

The Conservancy noted that the murals by renowned Santa Monica artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright that have decorated the foyer since the historic structure’s completion in 1938-39 "were identified as character-defining features of City Hall" when the building was designated a landmark in 1979.

"The Conservancy will need to follow up to ensure that all material and spatial characteristics of City Hall interiors are recognized as having historic significance so that there is no misunderstanding in the future," Conservancy officials wrote in an email to their supporters.

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