Publication Date

September 21, 2023

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily, Perspectives Summer Columns


  • United States


Cultural, Public History

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a two-part column. The first installment can be found here.

Upon entering Santa Monica’s Art Deco–style City Hall, located just blocks from the Pacific Ocean at the westernmost edge of Los Angeles County, one is confronted by a pair of imposing two-story-high murals depicting narrative scenes of local history. At left, two members of the Tongva Nation and three Europeans—including a Spanish conquistador and Franciscan padre—gather on a beach. The arrival of the Portola Expedition, perhaps? At right, locals in 1930s garb play polo and tennis along the same stretch of coastline, now the backdrop for sailboats and airplanes.

A brown plaque in a white wall with an art-deco font, reading 'Improved by Works Progress Administration 1935–1936'.

Can a 90-year-old piece of art help foster civic and community engagement? Rob Pongsajapan/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Completed with the building in 1939 under the auspices of the New Deal’s Federal Art Project (FAP), the murals were painted by Stanton Macdonald-Wright, a local artist who served as supervisor for the FAP’s Southern California division from 1935 to 1943. Today, they continue to prove the power of public art to move people, if not in the way the artist intended, and have become the focal point for vigorous civic discourse surrounding public art and history in the Los Angeles region.

The murals’ muted hues belie the fact that for 80 years Macdonald-Wright’s vision of California history has left many locals—including city employees who encounter the murals daily—feeling denigrated, minimized, and excluded from Santa Monica’s past and present. The Indigenous individuals pictured are kneeling in apparent subservience before upright Europeans. In addition, the all-white athletes at right are a far cry from the city’s historically diverse population, as highlighted by a current exhibition at the California African American Museum, Black California Dreamin’: Claiming Space at America’s Leisure Frontier, which details the historic African American presence in Los Angeles–area communities, including Santa Monica.

Macdonald-Wright’s murals came under fresh scrutiny during the nationwide reckoning with systemic racism and its manifestations in our commemorative landscape that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020. In 2022, in response to public outcry, the City of Santa Monica’s Cultural Affairs Division partnered with Meztli Projects, an Indigenous-based arts and culture collaborative, to lead a community engagement process about the future of the murals.

Woo has long been intrigued by citizen assemblies, where legitimacy is based not on credentials nor expertise, but on wide-ranging community representation.

Central to Reframe: City Hall, project facilitator Rosten Woo explained to me, were interviews, research on best practices, public programming, and a working circle composed of 12 community members. Ranging in age from their 20s to 80s, members of the working circle met roughly twice a month between December 2022 and June 2023. Woo has long been intrigued by citizen assemblies, where legitimacy is based not on credentials nor expertise but on wide-ranging community representation, flattened hierarchies, and equally weighted voices. “What if,” he asked, “we took that kind of format for decision making and applied it to public art and history?”

Indeed, upon learning about Reframe: City Hall, I was struck by the way New Deal artwork continues to inspire the reimagining of democratic participation. Myer Shaffer’s short-lived murals (the subject of my first column) did so by depicting uncomfortable contemporary truths that raised questions about the social contract, public welfare, and the nature of community. Ironically—and thanks entirely to the Reframe project’s rigorous contextualization and public engagement—Macdonald-Wright’s murals are doing so by inviting community members to question and debate the mythic narrative of US settler colonialism depicted therein.

Granted, this was not Macdonald-Wright’s intent—far from it. Art historian and Living New Deal assistant director Mary Okin explains that while these murals represent important innovations in 1930s art (Macdonald-Wright’s development of a technique he called petrachrome, for example), they also obscure the history of Santa Monica’s Indigenous and more diverse 1930s community. “The murals reflect a selective, abridged local history that centers a timeline of Euro-American settlement and industry,” Okin told me, “which reflects and rehearses a conventional method of representing one cultural group to the exclusion of others via art.”

Santa Monica launched Reframe: City Hall while a heated debate about the fate of Victor Arnautoff’s FAP murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco received high-profile media attention. As detailed in the 2022 documentary Town Destroyer, Arnautoff’s murals have fractured the community, pitting those who laud his antiracist critique of US history against those who condemn the murals’ traumatic imagery. At the debate’s center is Arnautoff’s life-sized depiction of an Indigenous man’s dead body lying prone at the feet of white settlers. A realistic representation of settler colonial violence, yes, but also harrowing for students whose families have suffered the long-lasting effects of that violence.

Recognizing that the Santa Monica working circle would be engaging in similarly difficult conversations about how we represent our history, Woo and his colleagues did their best to nurture a collegial environment where “nothing was off the table.” Informed by discussions with art historians, members of local Indigenous groups and other community members, the working circle weighed options ranging from the murals’ removal to their juxtaposition with response artwork.

It is by inspiring difficult conversations that public art has the potential to breathe new life into democracy.

To Okin, the murals represent “evidence of systemic injustice in Santa Monica’s past, and a very public reminder of the need to work diligently toward a more just future.” She hopes the Reframe process will center Indigenous history and Tongva narratives in the lobby, acknowledge the genocide of California’s Indigenous communities, and highlight other local communities omitted from Macdonald-Wright’s vision of Santa Monica. She also suggests the murals could be reframed to spark debates about industrialization and capitalism, especially given the second panel’s celebratory representation of fossil fuel technology. “These murals,” Okin says, “also prompt us to pause and consider our own complicity in other, 21st-century forms of injustice.”

Because they make legible the mythic narrative of US settler colonialism that has permeated our national consciousness for so long, the murals can—with extensive contextualization—serve as a point of departure for conversations about public art and democracy. This is very much in the spirit of the New Deal. As Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Commissioner of Education John Studebaker wrote in his 1936 book, Plain Talk, “When the masses of power-sharing citizens fail actually to participate in public discussion, the people tend to form themselves into rooting sections, applauding or booing those who do discourse or write about public issues.”

Indeed, it is by inspiring difficult conversations that public art has the potential to breathe new life into democracy. By drawing attention to the stakes of historical representation and making that process as inclusive as possible, we can begin to (re)vision the present and the future. Even more important is to take action by offering a counter-narrative to the conventional imaginary of the FAP murals. That would be a move that rekindles the legacy of the Federal Art Project today.

Santa Monica will publish the conclusions reached by the Reframe project this fall. In the meantime, Woo told me, “it is inspiring how much people did care and do care about public art.” Certainly, Shaffer’s and Macdonald-Wright’s very different New Deal murals have helped me to identify the global historical themes that have driven my academic research—empire, migration, and memory—at play in my home city. As I continue to delve into Los Angeles’ “living” New Deal, the global and local increasingly blur, as do past and present.

Natalie D. McDonald is an MA student at California State University, Northridge.

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