(New York, NY)—A proposed decision by the San Francisco School Board to destroy a series of controversial Depression-era murals at George Washington High School would constitute a serious threat to artistic freedom of expression, but a proposal to cover the murals without destroying them presents a sound alternative, PEN America said in a statement today.

“Destroying any work of art sets a dangerous precedent. And destroying one that has significant historic and pedagogical value like these would constitute artistic censorship and erasure,” said Julie Trébault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC). “We’re relieved these murals, that have sparked discomfort and conversation, will remain. We would prefer to see them in the public view, accompanied by contextual information. But this compromise at least a good start. We hope the San Francisco School Board will continue to pursue alternatives to the murals’ destruction.”

The 1936 Victor Arnautoff murals, entitled “The Life of Washington,” were a project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. Recently, the murals sparked controversy after several parents at the school said the work was offensive for its depictions of African-American slaves and a dead Native American. In June, the school board unanimously voted to paint over the murals. Since then, however, a large number of organizations have come out in opposition to the murals’ destruction.

Over 8,500 people have signed a petition opposing the destruction of the murals, and over 500 artists, historians, professionals, and more signed an open letter to the school board urging them to preserve the murals.

PEN America supports the effort to find a solution that addresses concerns while preserving the works of art, and stands firmly in solidarity with those opposing the destruction of these, or any, works of art.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, sfee@pen.org, +1 202 309 8892