The finishing touches were murals on the interior of the tower, from its base to its summit, depicting California’s life and history. Part of the New Deal’s Public Works Art Program, twenty-six artists worked under the technical direction of muralist Victor Arnautoff, who had trained with Diego Rivera. The effort to provide artists with meaningful work, not just labor, was a deliberate aspect of the program. A mobile app created by KQED and supported with funds from NEH delves into the historical, political, and social setting of the Coit Tower murals as well as ones at Rincon Annex and another by Rivera originally on Treasure Island (since moved to San Francisco City College). The app is one component of a cross-media project presenting contemporary newspaper articles, present-day interviews with historians, and archival photographs and films.
The murals were controversial at first, especially Bernard Zakheim’s Library, in which a browser’s hand is grasping a copy of Das Kapital he just pulled from the shelf. In Arnautoff ’s City Life, workers eager to buy socialist newspapers and magazines are vying with other readers at a busy kiosk. The context for these scenes was the 1934 Longshoremen’s Strike. Other characters and aspects of urban and agricultural life are shown as well, including a thug lifting a wallet at gunpoint, looming smokestacks portending industrial might, and farm laborers packing and loading produce.
The swath of humanity depicted in the murals has undergone damage over the generations from fog, vandals, and workers. The app presents audio and video of interviews with experts Gray Brechin and Robert Cherny on the invaluable cultural resources. “The thing that I find so interesting about the New Deal,” says Brechin, “is that right from the get-go the government saw its responsibility to help artists.” Cherny adds, “It was the New Deal art projects that made this whole notion of ‘the American scene’ so prominent in public art—to put ordinary people doing ordinary things. All of those things hadn’t really been seen as appropriate subjects for art.” Park administrators, arts advocates, historians and academics, and elected officials generally cooperate in caring for the murals, but are forced to share and compete for limited funds—always a bit of a gamble in terms of who comes out on top. Something Firebelle Lil would have understood and greatly appreciated.