Saving and Restoring the Historic California WPA Mural, Richmond - Industrial City

You would think that Victor Arnautoff, the artistic director of the extensive murals at Coit Tower in nearby San Francisco and a protégé of Diego Rivera would get some respect. But even an important oil on canvas (on wall) mural commission by the U.S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts for downtown post office in Richmond, CA painted by Arnautoff in April 1941 was unceremoniously ripped off the wall.

Records show that during a remodel of the post office lobby, the 6’ 6” X 13’4″ historical WPA mural of “Richmond Industrial City” depicting prominent people and places in Richmond… was not considered, at the time, so historically important… and Arnautoff was a prominent figure in New Deal art projects, a national federal program!

Apparently it languished, undetected in the building’s basement for almost half a century. Then, in 2014, the staff at the Richmond Museum of History and Culture learned from longtime member Fran Cappelletti that a mural had once graced the post office lobby. Executive Director, Melinda McCrary took charge in the hunt for this important large painting that had been “lost.” Her search lead her to the janitor for the post office and they found a huge triangular crate in an unlit room, the label clearly identifying it as the missing mural. This was exciting!!

Though valued by the knowledgeable museum staff, getting the USPS authorities to take action was a different matter. Even flooding in the basement had to be dealt with! When the crate was finally opened, there was a collective sigh of relief when it was realized that even though there was a water stain on the outside of the crate, the mural roll appeared unaffected.

No Controversy About This Once Missing Arnautoff Mural While recent controversy storms around a mural at a San Francisco medical center about whether to save valuable, historical murals from the same time period as this Arnautoff mural, there is no question at the Richmond Museum of History and Culture that the City’s heritage is documented and it is a legacy of valuable public art. The active historical museum hasn’t adopted the lazy tin-cup-in-hand begging techniques of fundraising but, thinking outside of the box, has implemented a vision of community participation that has been fun and educational.

On Tuesdays, October 20th and Nov. 10th, Scott M. Haskins, the art conservator chosen for the restoration of the mural, in collaboration with the Richmond Museum will be presenting a Zoom webinar to show, not only, the community the interesting aspects of this history and restoration but also give a super interesting educational presentation on what attendees can do on their own to “save their stuff,” or preserve collectibles, heirlooms and family heritage at home or the office. Mr. Haskins is a world renown author of several books on this subject and makes it a lot of fun.

“This is a compelling work that captures the diversity of Richmond, a blue collar community,” says Melinda McCrary, the Museum’s Executive Director. “A wide range of occupations, ethnicities and scenery demonstrate what life was like in those days. Richmond was a working-class American community.” It’s a celebration of life that was especially created for this community.

When Arnautoff, of Russian origin, painted the mural, he was one of the most prominent and influential members of San Francisco’s art community. Between 1932 and 1942, he completed 11public 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 people going about their daily tasks. His mural presents life in Richmond as of 1941-when America was on the brink of WWII.

Restoring an Art Treasure: Richmond Industrial City Mural

The eye-catching WPA mural was eventually declared lost after its unceremonious removal from its historical 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, great effort was taken with the museum board to find a mural expert to preserve, restore and install the mural 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 as the “A” team. All of the mural conservation treatments are done with the idea that the mural will last generations into the future. When a paint company tells you about their best quality of paint, they mean it will last 10 years. We think in terms of generations, a century. Everything we do has a long-term future in mind,” says Haskins.

He’s careful to point out that they (the art conservators) are not artists and they don’t do anything creative. What they do is painstaking labor that requires some detective work to determine how and why the original materials used in the painting fall apart and how they respond to preservation 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 an impressive history of experience restoring treasured artwork and murals here in the US.

He points out that the government’s goal in funding art like Arnautoff’s was to establish a legacy. “It was meant to be the artistic imprint on our community,” he says. “From a social conscience point of view, it is definitely worth saving.”

While art “restoration” might make one think the restorers are painting over something, Haskins says they don’t even have oil paint in their laboratory. Instead they work with special paint that is made for art conservation that can be removed easily, if needed sometime in the future, without damaging the original. They use cotton swabs and work on one color, one spot at a time. They are touching it up using a very small brush with just a few hairs, one dot of color at time. Then they custom apply varnish in many very thin layers, first with a brush and then a spray gun so that it is very even.

Haskins says the Richmond mural visually looks to be in good condition but “the drama and the traumatic effect of taking it off the wall has taken its toll.” Especially because the glue used in those days is rock hard. And the mural needs to be cleaned. “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,” he says.

Richmond’s Arnautoff mural presents interesting preservation and restoration challenges. Haskins says that around World War II, there were many new inventions and the war prompted new technology: paints and varnishes, glues, resins, like for battle ships, radiators, new building supplies etc. “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. We are hyper-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,” 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 importance of the times. And this mural is not just a decoration or like a picture in a book. It’s a panoramic memory-jogging view.”

On two Tuesdays, October 20th and Nov. 10th, Scott M. Haskins in collaboration with the Richmond Museum presented a Zoom webinar to show, not only, the community the interesting aspects of this mural’s history and restoration but also give a super interesting educational presentation on what attendees can do on their own to “save their stuff,” or preserve collectibles, heirlooms and family heritage at home or the office. Mr. Haskins is a world renown author of several books on this subject and made the learning process a lot of fun.

Restoration of Richmond an Industrial City was completed in October 2020.

Testimonial by Executive Director of the Museum, Melinda McCrary for WPA Mural Conservation and Reinstallation

Testimonials for other projects of the mural conservation services are on this playlist:

The video of the project is:

Call Scott M. Haskins for more information… or for a tour of the art conservation laboratory in Santa Barbara, CA. 805 564 3438 [mailto:[email protected]][email protected]

Call Melinda McCrary as the Richmond Museum contact for more information: 510 235 7387