By Scott M. Haskins
Just across the Bay from San Francisco, the small town of Richmond, California has been inspired by the enthusiasm of the Richmond Museum of History and Culture’s executive director, Melinda McCrary, and raised the resources to save, protect and restore an abandoned mural lost in storage after its removal from the Richmond post office during a 1970s renovation. The excellent quality modernist mural was originally painted under the Work Projects Administration in 1941 by Russian immigrant artist, Victor Arnautoff.
The Museum board’s vision of exhibiting the restored mural had already rallied support from the community, even at a time when shutting down public venues (due to the 2020 pandemic) was the norm, and the Museum’s administration took advantage of the collaborative efforts of their community. When McCrary came on board in 2014, she got to chatting with a long-time Richmond resident who asked, "'Have you heard of this post office mural that has been lost?'" He told McCrary that the mural had been painted by artist Victor Arnautoff, a protégé of Diego Rivera. Arnautoff was one of the most prominent and influential members of San Francisco’s art community. Between 1932 and 1942, he was the artist and director of 11 public murals, including the famous City Life (1934) mural inside the Coit Tower lobby in San Francisco.
Historical Context At The Beginning of WWII
Arnautoff painted the post office mural in 1941, just months before the U.S. entered World War II and at the moment when Richmond was being transformed into an epicenter for wartime ship building, car and tank manufacturing, and shipping.
Historian Robert Cherny, a professor emeritus at San Francisco State University (SFSU), said Arnautoff followed the same process he used for other post office murals in the New Deal era; he started by talking to locals. "Arnautoff talked to the local postmaster, the local newspaper editor," Cherny said. "He walked around the streets." The Richmond captured on canvas is a quiet town on its way to becoming an industrial city. There's a woman in a yellow dress buying fruit. There's a boy with his bicycle. In the background a freight train passes by oil tanks and a refinery spouting black smoke. But Richmond was about to undergo a massive population boost.
With the onset of the war, the population of Richmond exploded from 25,000 to 100,000 in four years. Can you imagine the chaos? But everyone was working. Richmond shipyards were the first in the nation to accept women in traditionally male occupations, a narrative the Museum displays proudly. Arnautoff, who at that time was a secret member of the Communist party, dropped subtle political messages into his mural. He depicts four dock workers on their union-guaranteed lunch break, discussing the news of the day. Catherine Powell, director of the Labor Archives and Research Center at SFSU noticed that two of the workers have round pins on their hats, indicating membership with the longshoremen's union. One of the four men is black—a significant gesture at a time when African-Americans made up just 1% of the city's population. Cherny said the local longshoremen's union was one of the first to promote a racially integrated workforce; the union "stood for the equality of all of its workers."
Sadly the Richmond mural was taken down during a renovation in 1976. "It was just forgotten," said McCrary. "It just got lost in the shuffle." You would think that Victor Arnautoff, a well-respected artist in the Bay area, would get some respect. But even an important oil on canvas, commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts, was unceremoniously ripped off the wall and forgotten. Stripped of its identity and context, the canvas languished undetected in the building’s basement for almost half a century.
Given the notoriety of the artist and the specific appeal of the mural’s subject matter to the Museum’s collection, Melinda McCrary decided she had to find it. When McCrary asked the postal employees about the mural, no one had heard of it, nor would they allow her to conduct a building search for the long lost work. Not willing to give up, McCrary enlisted the help of a member of her board, a former city council member who happened to know Richmond's former postmaster. The former postmaster knew a janitor who worked at the post office, and the janitor agreed to look for the mural.
One day after the post office closed, the janitor let McCrary into the basement. "It was totally sneaky," McCrary said. "I was not supposed to be down there." Deep underground, the janitor opened the double doors to a small dusty room where a large wooden crate sat alone with a handwritten label that read, "Victor Arnotoff" [sic].
McCrary couldn’t verify that the mural was in the box, let alone run off with it. She spent a year persuading the postal service to approve a loan to her museum. Then, just weeks after the deal was signed, McCrary found out that the basement of the post office had flooded. She panicked and rushed to the post office with a couple of art handlers. There they saw a waterline six inches up from the bottom of the crate. "We were all convinced that the mural was ruined," McCrary said. They whisked the crate out of the
post office, pried it open with a crowbar, and discovered that the mural had been stored on a set of lifts. "It was an absolutely exhilarating feeling to know that it didn't get wet," McCrary said, with relief still in her voice.
Thinking outside the box, the active historical museum has implemented a vision of community participation that has been both engaging and educational. “This is a compelling work that captures the diversity of Richmond, a blue collar community,” said Melinda McCrary. “A wide range of occupations, ethnicities, and scenery demonstrate what life was like in those days. Richmond was a working class American community.” The painting is a celebration of life that was especially created for this community.
The once-lost WPA mural, having found a new home at the Richmond Museum of History and Culture, was in need of an expert to preserve, restore, and install it for the enjoyment and education of generations to come. Scott M. Haskins, art conservator and author, and his team at Fine Art Conservation Laboratories, were chosen for the job.
An important factor considered when forming a treatment plan was the potential for significant seismic activity in the San Francisco Bay area. To give the mural an independent auxiliary support from the Museum’s old brick walls, the mural was first mounted onto a polyester non-woven material called Monotech. With grommets installed around the Monotech perimeter, the mural was bolted to the wall, allowing it independence from the wall’s potential movement in an earthquake and also allowing for easier detachment and removal in the future. The bolted border of the Monotech, extending past the outer edges of the mural by 2 inches, was covered with an architectural molding consistent with the style of the room, giving the painting the aesthetic of a framed work on the wall.
Haskins said that before conservation treatment the Richmond mural looked to be in good condition to the uneducated eye, but “the drama and the traumatic effect of taking it off the wall has taken its toll, especially because the lead-based glue used in those days is rock hard. We’re looking to have zero impact on causing more stress. We have to stabilize or cancel out the stress in the painting from the past.”
Richmond’s Arnautoff mural presents interesting preservation and restoration challenges. Haskins mentioned that around World War II, there were many new inventions and technologies prompted by the war including paints, varnishes, glues, and resins developed for battle ships, radiators, new building supplies, etc. This factor, along with the scarcity of supplies during wartime, meant that “if artists found a spare can of paint around, they used it. When we get into our tediously exacting work, we don’t discount the fact that the artist could have used some random, non-art material type paint.”
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,” he says. “Richmond doesn’t have a famous cathedral but we do have things that prompt or trigger our memory. People tell stories that perpetuate the valor and impor- tance of the times. And this mural is not just a decoration or like a picture in a book. It’s a panoramic memory-jogging historical view.”
In further support of the project after installation of the mural, Scott M. Haskins collaborated with the Richmond Museum to present two Zoom webinars attended by approximately 100 people. The webinars not only shared with the community this mural’s history and restoration, but also provided information on what attendees can do on their own to preserve collectibles, heirlooms, and family heritage in their home or office.
Contact Melinda McCrary at the Richmond Museum: firstname.lastname@example.org, +1-510-235-7387
https://www.RichmondMuseum.org. If you would like to be associated with the Museum’s efforts to protect and save art while telling their regional story, you can contribute here: https://richmondmuseum.org/donate/
Scott M. Haskins is an internationally renowned art conservator whose firm, FACL, provides professional services throughout the USA for paintings and murals. FACL also has a specialized division for disaster response services for art related items. He has been a member of IIC, AIC Professional Associate, and WAAC since 1976.
(See all the images and watch the videos in the April-May "News in Conservation" Issue 83, p. 18-23)