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Recognizing and Protecting America's Public Murals 

12-09-2015 17:35

The murals of the United States are an undervalued resource in American communities. Interior murals have a long and respected history in the United States (think of the Apotheosis of Washington inside the U.S. Capitol Rotunda dome, for instance, or the works of Pierre Puvis de Chevannes and John Singer Sargent in the Boston Public Library). But American cities and towns have tended to shy away from exterior murals, perhaps concerned that their size and the unpredictability of how they will age out-of-doors will make them too hard to maintain over time.

But America does have a legacy of both indoor and outdoor murals that is only just now being recognized. The genesis for these murals has run the gamut during the 20th and 21st centuries from government sponsorships to corporate and private commissions to spontaneous use of an unclaimed wall. Many cities have mural programs as a part of their cultural affairs endeavors. And a large percentage of America’s painted walls, particularly in disadvantaged urban areas, are community or individual efforts, painted with or without the permission of the owner of the wall. Because there has not been suitable recognition of these works and the social role they have played in their communities, many have been destroyed outright or shamefully neglected—a trend that will only accelerate unless action is taken.

Ancient Precedents to Mexican Masters

The use of an architectural surface as the support for a man-made image is certainly not a new phenomenon. Since there have been walls, there have been messages and pictures inscribed into them or painted upon them. From Pompeiians advertising their businesses—or their opinions—to the manufacturers of cell phones and laptops illustrating their products, many societies, communities, and individuals have found the exterior wall a useful, and always handy, place to state their business for passersby to consider.

Getting organized around the business of exterior mural painting is, however, a relatively recent phenomenon. Beginning in Mexico with Los Tres Grandes (Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros) in the first half of the 20th century, murals began to find their place in the annals of both art and social histories.

Interior, buon fresco mural painting (in which the pigments are incorporated into the wet plaster of the wall) has a longstanding tradition, and its technology has been well understood for many centuries, but the question of how to apply paint to an exterior wall has historically posed greater challenges for artists. Fifteenth-century fresco artists who painted on the outside walls of churches or on unprotected locations in cloisters could come to regret that choice during their own lifetimes, which could outlast that of their paintings. Only the paint on the underside or interior ceilings that was applied by the ancient Mayans to their stone buildings tends to remain intact today. The sun, the wind, and the rain are not kind to a fragile layer of paint clinging to the wall of a building, even if the pigments are imbedded in the plaster of a true fresco. The glass tesserae of mosaics can survive for centuries in these harsh conditions; paintings generally do not.

The Mexican muralists of the first half of the 20th century tried to overcome this inherent difficulty in expressing themselves on outdoor walls. Their experiments led to the development of plastic paints that had more staying power.

1930s Social Realism

The mural movement came north of the border in the 1930s and 1940s, thanks in great part to the charisma and large personal presence of Rivera himself, who created major fresco cycles for the City Club, the World Expo, and elsewhere in San Francisco; for the Detroit Institute of Art; and most famously, the controversial and eventually destroyed Rockefeller Center commission in which he included an unapproved image of Lenin, to the horror of his patrons. Orozco also worked in the United States from 1927 to 1934, and his American work had an effect upon both Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston, who saw it in person, as well as many others. Siqueiros worked in Los Angeles in the 1930s and ran a New York workshop, which Pollock attended in 1936.

Many artists working under the Work Projects Administration (WPA, originally the Works Progress Administration) Federal Art Project subsequently jumped onto the fresco bandwagon, leaving their legacy in post offices around the country (most of these funded through the Section of Fine Arts of the Treasury Department). They also graced such prime locations as the interior of San Francisco’s Coit Tower and building interiors and exteriors of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The WPA supported more than 5,000 artists nationwide, including painters of the stature of Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn, Stuart Davis, and Burgoyne Diller, who ran the WPA’s ambitious New York chapter.

As murals moved northward from Mexico, some of the technique was lost in translation. The rather complex, time-consuming, and time-sensitive medium of true fresco, which was facilitated by the existence of workshops full of assistants during the Italian Renaissance, was deemed too complex, expensive, and impractical by many WPA muralists. Some of them chose instead to use “tempera,” a generic term for water-based paints, whose matte appearance resembled that of true fresco. In addition, in order to work in the studio rather than on site, canvases were sometimes painted in one place and then adhered to a wall in another. As such, they might not technically be considered “murals” in the sense of a painting upon a wall, but their appearance was intended to simulate that of a true mural painting.

The content of the works of these “social realist” artists was intended to glorify the worker, and later the war effort. But by the 1950s, the complacent post-war years, the angry murals had all but disappeared. There is an anecdote, probably true, that the San Francisco Art Institute considered painting over its own Rivera, the monumental The Making of a Fresco, but reason prevailed; and it is true that a curtain shielded it from the eyes of the abstract expressionism–loving art world until figurative art returned to favor.

1960s Reinvention

By the 1960s, however, Rivera and company had become heroes to a new generation of activists, who took up the paintbrush to leave their large WE ARE HERE messages on the walls of American cities from Chicago to Los Angeles. But to an even greater extent than in the case of the 1940s artists who chose to imitate, rather than to replicate, the tried-and-true methods of the fresco artists of the past, what was missing was the technology. Chronically short on funds, the 1960s muralists tended to grab whatever paint was at hand and cheaply available, and to create their large messages on any accepting wall—with, or often without, the permission of the owners of that wall. Ironically, true fresco, which had been the chosen medium of leftist social expression in Mexico, was now considered precious and elitist; no one was teaching it, and no one was learning it.

There followed an explosion of community mural-making. From William Walker’s groundbreaking Wall of Respect (1967) in Chicago, which is generally acknowledged as the birthplace of the national movement of a “people’s art,” to the Latino communities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, walls bloomed in the 1960s with freshly painted, exuberant expressions of their communities’ passions and anger. If the artists lacked a unified theme or philosophy, they shared a means of expression: using the largest possible spaces that they could find to paint, so that all the world could see their messages.

In the frenzy of large public expressions of left-wing solidarity and discontent with the status quo, conflicts between murals and architecture began to arise. Muralists sometimes found the need to organize themselves into painting ghettos such as Balmy Alley in San Francisco’s Mission district, where they were given free reign by the local property owners to cover the fences, gates, and garage doors with their bright, bold visual statements. But considerations of posterity for these outdoor paintings were not foremost in the thoughts of the muralists. Not only did building owners who had allowed the works to be painted frequently fail to give the murals the respect that they deserved, but the paints themselves sometimes rebelled and acted in unexpected ways, frequently fading and peeling until they became mere suggestions of the artist’s original intent. Not all paints made for easel paintings age well in the open air and direct sunlight.

In the meantime, muralists kept painting on whatever wall they could find with whatever paint they had, and the conflicts grew as building owners bought and sold properties that sometimes came with a work of art on their wall that was either not to their taste, or in line with their politics, or within their budget to maintain. Murals were painted over. This being America, conflicts were resolved with lawsuits. Building owners who failed to maintain the paintings on their walls became the enemy and found themselves as defendants in several legal cases involving disappearing murals.

Paintings faded and peeled off garage doors and wooden gates. Mural artists, unlike painters of easel paintings, got little respect. Ray Patlan, one of the creators of San Francisco’s Balmy Alley and many other important murals, noted, speaking of the pervasive sense of art-school rejection: “Murals were thought of as trashy and gauche. The bias I encountered was cultural, racist, and against social engagement.” (quoted in Annice Jacoby, ed., Street Art San Francisco, New York: Abrams, 2009. p. 65)

Acknowledgment and Protection

A key acknowledgment of the mural movement as a significant artistic and social achievement finally arrived with the symposium “The Mural in the Americas,” which took place at the Getty Conservation Institute and the Getty Research Institute in 2003. There the points of view of social historians, art historians, muralists, conservators, arts attorneys, paint chemists, and managers of public art programs were all given equal weight in an effort to find common ground, and to work together to reduce the conflicts inherent in the painting of an image on a wall that is visible to the general public. While acknowledging the sometimes-adversarial points of view, the goal was then, and continues to be, to encourage communities to embrace existing murals and to facilitate the creation of more of them. One of the most shocking statistics that the assembled group learned, and that was a prime call to action, was that there were no significant murals left from the 1960s, and those from the 1970s were fast disappearing.

An initiative called Rescue Public Murals grew out of that symposium. Since 2006 it has been managed by Heritage Preservation, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., whose success with the Save Outdoor Sculpture! (S.O.S.!) program served as inspiration for the mural advocates. With a national committee of advisors which includes muralists, conservators, art historians, and public art professionals, Rescue Public Murals has created a database of individuals and organizations interested in the plight of mural paintings in America, focusing on exterior contemporary murals specifically.

The organization is also creating, with ARTstor, a database of U.S. public murals, and creating public access to those data. Rescue Public Murals co-chair Dr. Timothy W. Drescher explains the extent of its grasp:

While RPM is limited to exterior works, ARTstor’s digital archive is not, and it includes a number of interior murals. But both sorts are included because of their being generated with some relation to the surrounding community, and, given that criterion, nearly any mural can be included.In some cases,preparatory drawings are included, and in a few, process shots indicating especially the different stages a wall went through from blank to fully muralized. Forthe most part, school, children’s, and religious works are excluded (too many, and also because they are specialized subgenres).

The goal is first of all to provide a record of what has been painted (although some other media are included, such as the occasional mosaic) on walls across the country. Inclusiveness is second, with no expectation of completeness, with the exceptions of a few artists. Some spray-can work is included, but mostly narrative pieces, excluding tags, wild style, and egocentric pieces. Because the necessary work for inclusion is so much less than for preserving a building, ARTstor’s database can more easily be inclusive. Besides, very few murals are ever “saved.” At best, all that is possible is a life extension for another two or three decades. ARTstor merely archives the image on the wall, not the mural itself.

A “best practices” page on the Heritage Preservation website advises muralists and arts managers about the latest developments in painting technology, which we continue to research in an effort to help artists create longer-lasting murals. Conservation scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute and the University of Delaware/Winterthur Program in Art Conservation are working along parallel lines to further our understanding of the behavior of outdoor paints.

Rescue Public Murals is also funding the restoration of important murals across the country as financial support is secured. Working from a list of “Highly Endangered Murals,” we have thus far assessed more than a dozen paintings nationwide, working in teams that include a conservator, artist (or artist’s representative), and community members. Getting the broadest possible opinions about the creation of the mural, the nature of its deterioration, and the community’s and the artist’s desire to intervene has been an innovative approach to nontraditional conservation challenges. All stakeholders feel a sense of ownership around the preservation process when they are included in the decision-making.

Our first, highly successful, project was the conservation of Eve Cockcroft’s extremely important work in Harlem, Homage to Seurat: La Grande Jatte in Harlem. Painted in 1986 by Cockcroft and community members, it had faded and peeled to an extent that it no longer represented the artist’s vision, and many locals were not aware of its importance, or even of its presence. Working with the late artist’s representatives from the New York Art Makers, conservator Harriet Irgang Walden helped to re-create Cockcroft’s palette and instruct the artists and community helpers on how to use the paints for the restoration. The painting has again become a source of community pride on many levels. The work was funded by the Friends of Heritage Preservation. Rescue Public Murals has also been the grateful recipient of funding from the Booth Heritage Foundation, the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, the Getty Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The efforts of our organization complement the important work of such urban success stories as Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, San Francisco’s Precita Eyes, the Chicago Public Art Group, and the very ambitious and active SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) in Los Angeles, as well as work by many other cities that have inventoried and maintained their own painted walls for many years.

Several smaller communities use organized programs to support the creation of murals in order to promote their own unique histories and contributions to society, and to teach students, tourists, and passersby about history…and about murals. These community advocates, from Lake Placid (“Town of Murals”), Fla., to Lindsay, Calif., have organized themselves into a nationwide network of supporters and promoters of murals, with the aid of regional organizations such as CALPAMS (California Public Art and Mural Society) and many others who hold symposia and meetings of muralists and mural supporters alike.

Communities with public art programs have met the unique challenges of preserving their murals individually or by consulting with each other. The City of Santa Monica, Calif., for instance, created a policy of revisiting its commissioned murals after a certain number of years in order to agree, with the artist, the community, and the city art commission, about how to proceed with repainting, restoring, or starting over with a painted wall that may or may not still be legible after baking in the Southern California sun.

The Regional Arts and Culture Council of Portland, Ore., has come up with a solution to one of the most frequent conflicts between mural artists and cities. It addressed head-on a misguided definition of “signs” (whose numbers are usually limited by city ordinances) as opposed to “murals” (whose presence is ideally encouraged by arts advocates) after a long, circuitous struggle during which that definition had changed, effectively prohibiting the creation of any new murals in Portland. The council’s vibrant Public Arts Mural Program is now up and running again, with the use of easements well established for walls containing murals. Portland’s experience serves as a prototype for heading off such legal conflicts.

Major Considerations

What are the most important considerations for those of us who work together to preserve existing murals and to encourage the creation of new murals? Chief among them is a conviction that communities and individual property owners must buy into the idea of murals as community assets and support mural programs, individual commissions, and plans to preserve the paintings on their walls. Secondly, there is the shared understanding that a preservation plan can take many forms, from traditional conservation of the original materials to repainting in imitation of the original to starting over. The key to success is that everyone must find a way to agree before any intervention takes place.

The question of “value” is difficult to apply to a painting on an immovable wall. Murals, generally speaking, cannot be bought and sold, unless they were originally created to be freestanding or otherwise separable from their walls. Value in this case comes rather from the importance of the wall painting to the various constituencies whose lives it is a part of. These shareholders would be the muralist(s), the person or entity that commissioned the mural (if any) the original community that found the mural appropriate, and the current community that now lives with the mural (which may be grossly altered from the one that existed, say, 30 years earlier).

Considerations of aesthetic quality tend to take a back seat to a mural’s relevance to social history, although, of course, appearance is always an issue. Because of the sheer volume and scale of walls paintings, priorities must be assigned. Not every mural painted by the local grade school is necessarily a candidate for preservation. Relevance to its community is also a measure for differentiating true public art from vandalism. A public awareness process is key to identifying existing murals and thus to aid in determining what is most worth saving.

American murals have long graced the walls of their communities, speaking silently of the struggles, the passions, and the dreams of the people who live there. Together we can embrace them and ensure that they live long into the future.

Publication Date: Winter 2011


Author(s):Will Shank

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