One would think that Victor Arnautoff, the artistic director of the sprawling murals at Coit Tower in nearby San Francisco and protégé of Diego Rivera, would garner some respect. But even an important oil-on-canvas mural (on the wall) commissioned by the US Treasury Section of Fine Arts for the downtown post office in Richmond, CA, painted by Arnautoff in April 1941, was ripped unceremoniously from the wall.
Records show that during a post office lobby renovation, the historic 6′ 6″ X 13’4″ WPA mural of “Industrial City of Richmond” depicting prominent people and places in Richmond… was considered, at the time, so historically important…and Arnautoff was a leading figure in the New Deal art projects, a national federal program!
Apparently it languished, undetected in the basement of the building for nearly half a century. Then, in 2014, staff at the Richmond Museum of History and Culture learned from longtime member Fran Cappelletti that a mural had once adorned the lobby of the Post Office. Executive Director Melinda McCrary took charge of the search for this important large painting that had been “lost”. Her search took her to the post office janitor and they found a huge triangular box in an unlit room, the tag clearly identifying it as the missing mural. This was exciting!!
Although appreciated by knowledgeable museum staff, getting action by USPS authorities was a different matter. We even had to deal with flooding at the base! When the box was finally opened, there was a collective sigh of relief as he realized that although there was a water stain on the outside of the box, the mural scroll seemed unaffected.
No Controversy Over This Once-Missing Arnautoff Mural
While recent controversy erupts over a mural in a San Francisco medical center as to whether valuable historical murals from the same period as this Arnautoff mural should be saved, there is no doubt at the Richmond Museum of History and Culture that the The city’s heritage is documented and is a legacy of valuable public art. The active historical museum hasn’t embraced the lazy fundraising techniques of begging with a tin cup in hand, but, thinking outside the box, has implemented a vision of community engagement that has been both fun and educational.
On Tuesdays, October 20 and November 10, Scott M. Haskins, the art conservator chosen for the mural’s restoration, in collaboration with the Museum of Richmond, will host a Zoom webinar to showcase, not just the community, the interesting pieces of this history and restoration, but also offers a super engaging educational presentation on what attendees can do on their own to “save their stuff” or preserve collectibles, family heirlooms, and family heritage at home or in the office. Mr. Haskins is a world-renowned author of several books on this subject and he makes it so much fun.
“This is captivating work that captures the diversity of Richmond, a working-class community,” says Melinda McCrary, executive director of the museum. “A wide range of occupations, ethnicities and landscapes demonstrate what life was like in those days. Richmond was a working-class American community.” It is a celebration of life that was created especially for this community.
When the Russian-born Arnautoff painted the mural, he was one of the most prominent and influential members of the San Francisco art community. Between 1932 and 1942, he completed 11 public murals, the best known of which is City Life (1934) at Coit Tower in San Francisco. The Richmond Post Office mural was Arnautoff’s last mural of this size and the first time since Coit Tower that he chose to depict a mix of city folk going about their daily business. His mural depicts life in Richmond beginning in 1941, when the United States was on the brink of World War II.
Restoring an artistic treasure: mural of the industrial city of Richmond
The striking WPA mural was finally declared lost after it was unceremoniously removed from its historic post office in the 1970s. Having found its home at the Richmond Museum of History and Culture under the enthusiastic care of Director Melinda McCrary, a great effort was made with the museum board to find a mural expert to preserve, restore, and install the mural for the enjoyment and education of future generations. I like it.
Scott M. Haskins, art conservator and author, and his team at Fine Art Conservation Laboratories were chosen as the “A” team. All conservation treatments of the mural are done with the idea that the mural will last for generations to come. When a paint company tells you their best quality paint, they mean it will last 10 years. We think in terms of generations, a century. Everything we do has the long-term future in mind,” says Haskins.
He is careful to point out that they (the art curators) are not artists and do not do anything creative. What they do is painstaking work that requires some detective work to determine how and why the original materials used in the painting crumble and how they respond to conservation treatments. “The art conservation process involves knowing how the artwork reacts to the environment.” Haskins and his team were trained decades ago in Italy and have an impressive history of experience restoring prized artwork and murals here in the US.
He points out that the government’s goal in funding art like Arnautoff’s was
establish a legacy. “It was meant to be the artistic mark on our community,” he says. “From a social consciousness point of view, it’s definitely worth saving.”
While art “restoration” might make one think restorers are painting over something, Haskins says they don’t even have oil paint in their lab. Instead, they work with special paint made for art conservation that can be easily removed, if needed in the future, without damaging the original. They use cotton swabs and work on one color, one dot at a time. They are touching it up with a very small brush with just a few hairs, one dot of color at a time. Then they apply the custom varnish in many very thin coats, first with a brush and then with a spray gun to make it very even.
Haskins says the Richmond mural visually appears to be in good condition, but “the drama and traumatic effect of removing it from the wall has taken its toll.” Especially since the glue used in those days is hard as a rock. And the mural needs to be cleaned. “We’re looking to have zero impact on causing more stress. We have to stabilize or cancel the stress in painting from the past,” he says.
Richmond’s Arnautoff Mural presents interesting conservation and restoration challenges. Haskins says that around World War II, there were a lot of new inventions and the war fueled new technologies: paints and varnishes, glues, resins, like for warships, radiators, new building materials, etc. “If the artists found a spare can of paint, they used it. As we get into our tedious and demanding work, we don’t discount the fact that the artist might have used some kind of random non-art paint. We’re hyperactive.” . -vigilant.”
Haskins shares Melinda McCrary’s commitment to preserving the mural: “The idea of preserving our heritage and understanding our legacy is very important to the community,” she says. “Richmond doesn’t have a famous cathedral, but we do have things that spark or ‘trigger’ our memories. People tell stories that perpetuate the value and importance of the times. And this mural is not just a decoration or as an image on a book. It’s a bird’s-eye view to jog your memory.”
On both Tuesdays, October 20 and November 10, Scott M. Haskins, in collaboration with the Richmond Museum, presented a Zoom webinar to show, not only the community, the interesting aspects of the history and restoration of this mural, but also to provide a super interesting educational presentation. about what attendees can do on their own to “save your stuff” or preserve collectibles, family heirlooms, and family heritage at home or in the office. Mr. Haskins is a world renowned author of several books on this subject and made the learning process so much fun.
Richmond’s restoration as a factory town was completed in October 2020.