As part of an effort to “recontextualize” two Stanton Macdonald-Wright murals that have been the subject of community controversy, the Santa Monica Conservancy plans to explore their historical and cultural context with a diverse group of expert speakers.
The Conservancy will host a webinar at 5 p.m. on Jan. 23 featuring Will South, an art historian who specializes in Macdonald-Wright’s work; Kim Morales Johnson, Tongva tribal leader and Board member of the Gabrieliño Tongva Springs Foundation; and Sharon Reyes, a descendant of the owners of Rancho Boca de Santa Monica.
Together the three speakers will dig into the early history of Santa Monica, expose aspects both positive and tragic, and explore the intentions of Macdonald-Wright when designing the murals.
“We expect that people will learn many things about the murals that they never knew before and come to appreciate their importance as historic works of art, as well as illuminating the march of California’s history and some of the important themes of our history, which are very complicated and often difficult, but things that we can all learn from,” said Conservancy Board Member Ruthann Lehrer.
The two murals were painted by renowned artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright in the 1930s as part of the Work Progress Administration public art program and are located 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.
They have drawn criticism for the appearance of natives kneeling to Europeans and the comparative lack of detail in the faces of natives versus Europeans. In response, City Council has decided to cover the murals in a temporary permeable metal curtain while the community discusses the best way to recontextualize the mural.
Suggestions for recontextualization include adding educational signage and enriching the area with contemporary art reflecting new perspectives on the city’s history.
The conservancy hopes the webinar can kick start those important conversations and help clear up misunderstandings about the mural.
For example, Lehrer said that the mural does not actually depict natives kneeling to Europeans, but rather natives kneeling to drink from the Kuruvungna Sacred Springs, which was the city’s first water source. In the 18th century Spanish monk father Juan Crespi wrote in his diary that the springs reminded him of the tears of St. Monica, which later inspired the naming of Santa Monica.
“It’s that complexity of our history that is worth exploring and that’s one of the reasons we’d like to present this public information webinar, so that people begin to understand those meanings, because otherwise it’s easy to misunderstand what you see in the mural,” said Lehrer.
Residents can register for the webinar at https://www.smconservancy.org/event/the-city-hall-murals-exploring-their-historic-and-cultural-contexts/