City staff have released a timeline for recontextualizing a pair of 1930s Stanton Macdonald Wright murals, which have been a subject of controversy for several years due to their depiction of native Americans and framing of Santa Monica’s history.
In the first quarter of 2022, temporary semi-transparent metal curtains will be installed over the murals per a decision made in a May 2021 City Council meeting. Community discussions are planned for May to October 2022 and staff is expected to report back to Council with recommendations for recontextualization by January 2023 with a goal to implement the project by the end of 2023.
The two murals are in the lobby of City Hall. One displays the first contact between the Europeans and native Tongva, while the other shows popular activities from the City’s past including polo, tennis, auto races, aviation and sailing.
Concerns about the murals include the comparative attention to detail on the faces of European versus native characters, the interpretation of natives’ posture as subservient and the elite nature of the recreational activities that are displayed.
One of the prominent critics of the murals is Councilmember Oscar de la Torre. De la Torre currently serves on an Ad Hoc Committee with Councilmember Christine Parra that is in charge of serving as liaisons to the Arts and Landmarks Commissions as the community explores how to address the murals’ contested history.
“We should strive to do everything in our power to unite our country behind principles and actions that show respect for the cultural diversity that makes us a strong nation,” said de la Torre. “The murals from the 1930’s on our walls at City Hall fail to deliver what we need today.”
While recontextualizing is the verb of choice, it is unclear what this will entail in terms of material changes.
The information item prepared by staff states that the goal of recontextualizing artwork instead of removing it is, “to avoid erasing the stains of the past but to use the process and new artworks to educate, with the goal of acknowledging historic inequities and committing to a more just future.”
Some ways this has been implemented to other artworks include adding educational signage commenting on the art or correcting historical inaccuracies, overlaying the art with quotes from members of communities that the artwork marginalizes, or adding new inclusive artwork and installations around the original.
The City plans to hold three to four educational discussions to talk about the future of the murals with community members and representatives from the Council Ad Hoc Committee, Arts Commission and Landmarks Commission.
“We have an opportunity to engage in a conversation that I hope will deepen our understanding of each other’s histories,” said de la Torre. “Ultimately, everyone should feel welcomed, uplifted and proud of the way we present our City Hall to the world.”
Once Council has approved the recontextualization plan, a RFP process will begin to solicit artists or artistic teams to carry out the project. The timeline plans for the alterations to take place in between August and December 2023.