The federal art programs of the New Deal produced public art in quantities not seen before or since. Historians have studied many aspects of the New Deal's art programs, but few have considered the long-term history of works produced by them. New Deal art programs produced large numbers of public murals—so many that such murals are often thought of as the typical form of New Deal art. They thus provide readily available examples of the long-term experience of New Deal art. San Francisco has a particularly rich collection of these murals. Some of them have been well cared for over the past eight decades, but public officials have proved negligent stewards—and occasionally destructive stewards—of others. Some of San Francisco's murals were considered so controversial at the time they were created that they were modified or even destroyed. Others became controversial later, with calls for modification or destruction. Some of the latter were covered, some were vandalized, and some have deteriorated. Most of the damaged murals have been restored, sometimes more than once. This article looks at the city's New Deal murals at Coit Tower, the Mothers Building at the Zoo, the Beach Chalet, the University of California San Francisco, the Alemany Health Center, Treasure Island/City College, and Rincon Annex/Center, with special attention to the George Washington High School murals that have recently been highly controversial. Controversies over the murals at Coit Tower, Rincon Annex, and George Washington High School also reveal significant changes in the role of the city's political and civic leadership with regard to public art.
San Francisco's New Deal Murals in Long-Term Perspective: Controversy, Neglect, and Restoration
robert cherny professor emeritus at San Francisco State University, received his PhD from Columbia University (1972). He specializes in U.S. political history, 1877–1941, and the history of California and the West. He is the author of three books on U.S. politics, 1865–1925, and some thirty published essays; coauthor of two books on San Francisco history, a U.S. survey textbook, and a California history textbook; and coeditor of two anthologies. His most recent book is Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art (University of Illinois Press, 2017).
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Robert W. Cherny; San Francisco's New Deal Murals in Long-Term Perspective: Controversy, Neglect, and Restoration. California History 1 February 2020; 97 (1): 3–32. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ch.2020.97.1.3
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