Santa Monica Kicks Off Process to Determine Fate of City Hall Murals

By Jorge Casuso

January 20, 2023 — The public will begin weighing in next month on the fate of two historic murals in the City Hall lobby that critics contend are “vestiges of white supremacy.”

The Reframe: City Hall Mural project — which kicks off with a tour February 11 — will focus on the “meaning, impact and potential responses” to the murals that have greeted visitors since 1939.

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City Hall murals depicting the naming of Santa Monica and recreational activities (Courtesy City of Santa Monica)

“I’m looking forward to hearing voices from our community so that we may move forward in this important work to address this mural and how we welcome our communities to City Hall,” said City Manager David White.

The City Council initially voted in March 2021 to cover with a woven scrim the murals depicting Native Americans kneeling before Spanish conquistadors and privileged Anglos enjoying polo, tennis, sailing and auto racing.

A year later, the Council reversed its vote after the Santa Monica Conservancy mounted a last-ditch campaign to stop the veiling of the murals by renown Santa Monica artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright.

The Reframe project — which is comprised of two phases — includes “a series of community conversations and art activities,” City officials said.

The goal is to address the mural and potentially commission new artworks “that will convey more of this country’s history and better express our community’s values ​​today.”

The first phase of the project — with four events ending April 1 — “will include a community engagement process to share ideas and feedback about the mural and related topics of civic representation in public art.”

The findings, along with recommendations, will be compiled in a final report by Meztli Projects, which was hired by the City to help lead the project.

Meztli Projects, said Cultural Affairs Manager Shannon Daut, is “an Indigenous-based arts & culture collaborative centering Indigeneity into the creative practice of Los Angeles.”

Titled “History of Santa Monica and the Bay District,” the mural is one of hundreds of historic artworks across the country that have come under criticism and in many cases removed.

“In Santa Monica, the City Council has determined that this lobby mural, in this prominent position of welcome into the seat of city government, does not express the full complexity of our histories and community,” officials said.

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, who began protesting the mural in 2015 when he was a School Board member, has called the art works “Santa Monica’s Confederate flag.”

“I personally like the art,” de la Torre said when the Council approved his item calling for the murals to be covered. “I just feel that it’s very problematic” having them “within the walls of our government.”

Historic preservationists have long argued that opponents are misrepresenting the image of the Native Americans depicted in the mural (“Historian Says Activist Misinterpreting Santa Monica City Hall Mural as Racist,” June 30, 2015).

They also note that the murals offer a self-portrait of how Santa Monica viewed itself when City Hall was constructed and “were identified as character-defining features” when the building was designated a landmark in 1979.

Several options for the murals — which stretch from the top of the lobby benches to the towering ceiling — were floated during the Council’s debates.

They include everything from relocating the panels to a different venue, such as a museum, and replacing them with new artwork, to placing a plaque that puts the images in their historic context.

For more information on the City Hall Mural project click here.

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