Mural: The mural will be the subject of community discussions. Courtesy image

Santa Monica will soon cover a pair of 1930s Stanton McDonald Wright murals located at the entrance of City Hall before beginning a community engagement process that will allow local residents an opportunity to share their opinions on the matter.

The artistic scrim cover will be installed prior to July 13th when the public is expected to return for Council meetings in City Hall but it’s not yet known when the city’s Arts Commission and Cultural Affairs department will initiate a community engagement process that will decide if the murals should be replaced with something else. And, if so, then what.

The mural discussion was initiated Tuesday by Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, who clarified this week that the murals will still be visible through the light woven cover but there will be other images that will be superimposed over to tell a more complete narrative.

“If you want to see those images in the back you can see them but it’ll give us an opportunity to put other images forward as well. And then, and then that will give us some time to engage in a robust discussion with the community about what we want to see you know in images in our public space, especially at our city hall,” he said, stating he understands the McDonald murals have value to the city but he believes they might be better off in a more appropriate venue like a museum. “We understand that the Stanton McDonald Wright mural of the history of Santa Monica was done in the 1930s, and it has value. Some think it’s beautiful art; I personally like the art. I just feel that it’s very problematic, you know, to have it now as it stands within the halls of our government, a place that should be inclusive.”

Councilmember Christine Parra, who requested along with de la Torre and Phil Brock that the item be placed on Council’s agenda, noted the mural was created during a period of redlining in Santa Monica as she agreed with the belief that Native American Indian people have not always been depicted in a positive light.

“It looks like a Native American being subservient to the Spaniards,” Parra said as she contrasted the mural’s depiction of the Native Americans’ facial features with others who are portrayed. “So, it kind of adds to that subserviency and then also being a savage; and so I think that we can do better 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.”

As a former member of the Arts Commission, Brock said during the meeting that he previously met with members of the Tongva tribe and professors from the University of Southern California about the mural and he’s quite happy that de la Torre brought the matter forward to Council’s attention.

“At the time, we thought we left the meeting and came to our next Arts Commission meeting, and thought that a representative plaque would be added to the murals at the entrance of City Hall,” Brock said as he detailed how he doesn’t see his ancestors in the mural, which is a sentiment felt by many in the community. “We thought that the art that was going to be commissioned for the adjunct Hall City Hall East would all be representative of the people that we all grew up seeing in Santa Monica; that we would show a more representative view of our Native Americans, a view of our Japanese and Mexican and Polish and German, and African-American immigrants to our city, who did so much…. Instead, the public art was a series of plastic or glass things in a stairwell that only the staff could see and the public weren’t going to be invited to. Well, I thought that was wrong, so I think we need to have a robust discussion.”

Jeremy Gonzalez, a member of the of the Tongva-Kizh Nation who called in during public comment, said he found it very troublesome that Council would even have a discussion about the offensive mural without thinking about painting over it or installing a mural of Toypurina, who is famous partly for her role in the planned 1785 rebellion against the Mission San Gabriel, where she recruited six of the eight villages that participated in the attack.

“As you know we’re the first indigenous people in the Los Angeles basin and we were enslaved by the Spanish to build the Catholic mission in the city of San Gabriel,” Gonzalez added. “I respect the City of Santa Monica for which you guys have done to honor us with the park there, you know, but as far as this mural goes, you know you guys really need to do something about it.”

Councilmember Kevin McKeown said Gonzalez represented a voice that isn’t often heard, the voice of the indigenous tongue.

“And what he asked us to do was to change the narrative, not stop the narrative — change,” McKeown said, stating he was fully supportive of the measures taken before the pandemic hit to recontextualize the piece. “Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it, so let’s look at our history with clear eyes and recognize the mistakes that were made, the tragedies that happened, the inequities — all of that — but not hide it. The part of this that I just don’t understand is the desire to hang something over those murals. If we really want to have a community conversation, let us stand there in the lobby of City Hall looking at those murals in good light. And let’s notice things like what Councilmember de la Torre pointed out; that the white people, the Spaniards and the polo players all have defined eyes, and the native people don’t. What does that mean? What does that tell us about how the events of the 1500s were seen in the 1930s? What does that tell us about who we hope to become one day? I think that’s the way it is to look at those murals, not covering them over.”

“The mural most in question is an artistic representation of a mythic event from the 1500s, done in the 1930s now being seen through 2020 eyes; and I wouldn’t be surprised if whatever artwork we put up now in 2020 — in the year 2100 — will be seen as impossibly old fashioned and out of keeping with contemporary views of life in Santa Monica; that’s kind of inevitable,” added McKeown, who was the only no-vote on the item. “I believe, 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. 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. I really regret that we’re going to do this.”

De la Torre took issue with what he felt was a twisting of Gonzalez’s words before he attempted to persuade Council to agree to place a mural of Toypurina or another indigenous warrior in City Hall.

“I think the compromise would be that we would cover the art and engage the community in the process to determine what type of art we want; what type of public art do we want on our walls that’s inclusive, that’s respectful, that’s welcoming to everybody that comes into our city hall, which is owned by everyone, especially the taxpayers and the residents of the city,” de la Torre said. “And by the way, I didn’t come up with the concept of a mesh… So this is a compromise; We’re working with staff; We’re being patient. It’s three years already in the making. I think it’s time for us to move forward.”