Museums & Heritage

San Francisco university in talks with US government about preserving New Deal-era murals slated for destruction

The General Services Administration considers paintings by Bernard Zakheim federal property on loan to the school, it says

A panel from the mural series History of Medicine in California by Bernard Zakheim

The US government’s General Services Administration, which oversees works of art created under New Deal art programmes, has told the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) that it considers a series of murals at risk of demolition to be federal property on loan to the school. The two are now discussing the government’s potential involvement in the murals’ preservation, the university says.

UCSF commissioned the Polish-born artist Bernard Zakheim—a student of Diego Rivera’s—to paint a suite of ten murals depicting California’s medical history in the 1930s. But the school now intends to demolish the building housing the murals, UC Hall, to construct a 1.5-million-sq-ft hospital and research centre on the site. The move has been criticised by heritage groups and the artist's family, who have issued public calls to save the murals.

A spokeswoman for the university told the San Francisco Chronicle last month that safely relocating the murals could cost as much as $8 million, and it has decided not to spend public funds on such a project “when the UC system faces financial challenges in the wake of COVID-19”. The university added in a statement that two historical preservation firms it hired concluded that relocating the fragile murals “would probably result in irreparable damage”.

UCSF also reached out to Nathan Zakheim, the artist’s 76-year-old son, suggesting that the family could remove the mural—at their own expense—and gave him three months to come up with a plan. Nathan Zakheim, who is an art conservator based in Los Angeles, says he worked with his father to remove and restore two other murals at UCSF’s Cole Hall in 1967, and that he believes he could do the job for $1 million.

Among those that have criticised the murals' possible destruction is Jackie Broxton, the executive director of the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation. In an Op-Ed in The Los Angeles Times, Broxton reveals that one panel features Biddy Mason, a former slave who became a midwife, shown treating a malaria patient alongside Dr John Griffin, one of the city’s leading early medical authorities. “Zakheim depicts Mason as she was: a healing presence and a pillar of early Los Angeles,” Broxton says, adding: “The United States boasts vanishingly few monuments to women of color. Fewer still if the university is allowed to go forward with its ill-considered plans to bulldoze the Biddy Mason mural along with nine others.” In a statement it released on Wednesday, the university says it is now working to transfer a high-resolution image of the panel featuring Mason onto canvas for the foundation.

The university also says it is exploring relocating the murals to a museum or other institution, “where they can be properly maintained by experts and made available to scholars and the public”, which the school says it cannot continue to do. It is also in talks with the government about preserving the murals. But if UCSF cannot find someone to permanently take the works, they could be demolished with the building.