Richmond, California’s Industrial City’s Historic WPA Mural Restored

The artistic director of Coit Tower’s murals and a protege of Diego Rivera, Victor Arnautoff, should receive some recognition. As for one of Arnautoff’s most important oil on canvas (on wall) murals, it was unceremoniously taken down from the wall at the downtown Richmond, CA post office in 1941.

The WPA mural of “Richmond Industrial City,” which depicts prominent people and places in Richmond, was removed during a renovation of the post office lobby… The historical significance of this event was not recognised at the time… For his part, Arnautoff played an important role in the New Deal’s art projects across the country.

It appears to have sat in the basement of the building for nearly half a century without anyone noticing it. When a long-time member of the Richmond Museum of History and Culture told them about a mural that once adorned the post office lobby, the museum’s staff couldn’t believe it. Melinda McCrary, the organization’s executive director, took the lead in the search for the “lost” large painting. Finding the post office janitor led to the discovery of a large, triangular, labelled crate that contained the mural that had gone missing. Exciting, to say the least
Even though it was highly regarded by the museum’s well-versed staff, getting the USPS to act was a different story. Even basement flooding had to be addressed! There was a collective sigh of relief when the crate was finally opened and the mural roll appeared unaffected by the water stain on the outside of the crate.

That the Arnautoff Mural, which was previously missing, is now back in place, is uncontested
It’s no secret that the Arnautoff mural in San Francisco’s medical centre recently sparked a storm of controversy over whether or not to save priceless, historically significant murals from the same era as that of the Richmond Museum of History and Culture. To raise funds, the historical museum hasn’t relied on the clumsy tin-cup-in-hand beggar tactics of the past, but instead has come up with a fresh approach that has been both entertaining and educational.

The Richmond Museum and the art conservator Scott M. Haskins, who was selected to restore the mural, will host a Zoom webinar on October 20th and November 10th to educate the public about the mural’s history and restoration as well as what individuals can do to “save their stuff,” such as collectibles, heirlooms, and family heirlooms. Mr. Haskins is a well-known author and lecturer on this topic, and he does so in a lighthearted and engaging manner.

Melinda McCrary, the Museum’s Executive Director, says, “This is a compelling work that captures the diversity of Richmond, a blue collar community.” Life in those days was depicted by a wide range of occupations, ethnicities, and scenery. At its peak, Richmond was a working-class American city.” It’s a memorial service designed with the people of this neighbourhood in mind.

When Russian-born artist Arnautoff painted the mural, he was one of San Francisco’s most prominent and influential artists. At Coit Tower in San Francisco, he completed 11 public murals between 1932 and 1942, the most famous of which is City Life (1934). For the first time since Coit Tower, Arnautoff chose to depict a diverse group of city dwellers going about their daily routines in the Richmond Post Office mural. His mural depicts life in Richmond in 1941, when the United States was on the verge of entering World War II.

Richmond’s Industrial City Mural Restoration: A Priceless Work of Art

After the WPA mural was removed from its historic post office in the 1970s, it was deemed to have been lost. Melinda McCrary, the director of the Richmond Museum of History and Culture, worked tirelessly with the museum board to locate a mural expert to preserve, restore, and install the mural for future generations to enjoy and learn from..

Among the “A” teams was Fine Art Conservation Laboratories, led by conservator and author Scott M. Haskins. With the goal of preserving the murals for future generations in mind, all conservation treatments are performed. The term “10-year paint” is a marketing term used by paint manufacturers to imply that their best quality paint will last for at least that long. In our minds, a century is comprised of several generations. As Haskins puts it, “We do everything with the long-term future in mind….

Because art conservators are not artists, he stresses that they are not creative people. A lot of detective work is required to figure out why and how the original materials used in the painting are deteriorating, as well as to see how preservation treatments affect them. “Knowing how an artwork reacts to its environment is an important part of the art conservation process.” Haskins and his team have a long history of restoring priceless artwork and murals in the United States, having received decades of training in Italy.

Art like Arnautoff’s were funded by the government because they wanted to leave a legacy. According to him, “It was meant to be the artistic mark on our community.” “It’s definitely worth saving from a social conscience standpoint.”

While the term “restoration” conjures up images of artists painting over their work, Haskins says they don’t even keep oil paint in their laboratory. When it comes to art conservation, they use a special type of paint that can be easily removed if necessary in the future, without harming the original piece. Cotton swabs are used, and each colour is applied to a single spot. Using a dot of colour and only a few hairs on a very small brush, they are retouching the area. In order to ensure an even coat of varnish, they use a brush and then a spray gun to apply a series of very thin layers.

While the Richmond mural appears in good condition, Haskins says that the drama and the traumatic effect of removing it from the wall have taken their toll on the mural. In particular, due to the fact that the glue used at the time was brittle. The mural also requires cleaning. To avoid causing additional stress, we want to do everything we can to avoid it.” According to him, “We need to stabilise or cancel out any stress in the painting from the past”