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Smithsonian withdraws offer to buy endangered L.A. murals

March 27, 2011 |  2:31 pm

Alston In a brief statement released Saturday, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture withdrew its bid to buy an important pair of 1949 murals from a historic building in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles and relocate them to Washington.

The murals were being sold as part of an asset liquidation process for a failed insurance company.The building's new tenants, a nonprofit social services agency, has expressed a desire to keep the two paintings in the place for which they were made.

The Smithsonian statement said, "The Museum’s bid – submitted in late 2010 – was in keeping with its strong commitment to obtaining historic and culturally significant works of art on behalf of the American people for exhibition in the nation’s capital and on national tours." Because of expressions of local interest in retaining the murals, however, the museum "has respectfully decided to withdraw" its $750,000 offer.

The Smithsonian certainly can't be blamed for wanting the murals, but the museum is to be commended for its decision. The planned acquisition might have been a good idea, considering other alternatives (such as selling to a private collector); but the ideal solution is to leave them where they are.

In styles indebted to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, the site-specific paintings by noted artists Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff are imposing chronicles of  African American history in California -- and, not coincidentally, are themselves significant examples of it. They were painted on canvas, rather than directly on the lobby walls of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. building, to protect against potential earthquake damage.

That also means the paintings aren't out of the woods yet. Conventionally portable easel paintings, photographs and other works from the insurance company's art collection have already been sold. Court hearings get underway downtown on Monday to determine whether the murals, which were made specifically for the site, can also be taken down and sold to any bidder. Perhaps the Smithsonian's announcement will help persuade the court not to let that happen.


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Photos: Charles Alston, "Exploration and Colonization," 1949, oil on canvas; Credit: Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co.


Comments () | Archives (3)

First, I'm looking at reproductions of the artwork at home. Why do they "need" to stay on site in order to communicate their message? And they aren't improvements to real property; they are personal property.

Second, why can't the property owners bid on them and buy them back from the insurance company?

The argument seems to be that the property owners are entitled to the artwork for free: "This stuff is important to my/our culture, therefore we don't have to pay you to get it back, even though we legally lost control of it due to bankruptcy a long time ago."

Why is artwork in this special category that's different from all other property? It's like community property where no one owns it. First it belongs to one party, then it belongs "to us all" - simply on the say-so of people who aren't willing to pony up the money to buy it. It seems like theft by political means. Rally enough people behind the banner of 'historic preservation' and - Viola! - your property is now 'our property' without even paying you for it!

Any clear-headed judge should be able to figure this one out.

These murals have been kept secret by GSM. They are bigger than GSMLI and should be sent to Washington. Now, only a few 3rd and 4th graders on "the LA mural tour" will get to un-appreciate them. LA has doesn't care about art or black history.

The comments are made by people who have no familiarity with the situation. GSM is not involved with this. All of their property has been taken over by CIB. The building is now owned by another organization. The murals were excluded from the sales agreement by CIB, because they were appraised at more than the value of the building. After the fact, the CIB got an appraisal that was about 1/6th of the original appraisal, but that was not communicated in the RFP for bids for the murals. Local entities offered much more than the $750, 000 to purchase the murals and keep them in place, which would have been a better deal for everyone, including the creditors CIB is allegedly protecting. And who are you to say that black LA does not appreciate its heritage. Black businessmen are the ones who are trying to save the murals for the community, and the new owners are committed to community education. The Smithsonian did the right thing, and hopefully the best outcome for all will be achieved. Keep the murals where they are and keep GSM open, as it was intended to be from the beginning, for the black community.


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