Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

City to paint over Duboce center's Milk mural


Johanna Poethig's Harvey Milk mural on the Duboce Park recreation center named in his honor soon will be painted over as the building is renovated. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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The city will soon paint over a mural of a smiling Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in a major U.S. city, on the side of the eponymous recreation center in Duboce Park.

The colorful depiction of the former supervisor has faded over time due to the sun's rays. It will soon be a mere memory as the city's Recreation and Park Department is renovating the aging building, and the plans do not call for saving the mural on the south-facing wall along Duboce Street.

Already the lower portion of the mural is obscured by the construction of a new staircase for the building. Within the next six to eight weeks, the contractors are expected to paint over the remaining portion of the public artwork.

In its place will be two different art installations honoring Milk and his legacy created by the artistic team of Susan Schwartzenberg and Michael Davis. The most visible to passersby will be installed on the rec center's east-facing wall overlooking the park.

An artist's rendering of the work depicts the supervisor's quote "The American dream starts with neighborhoods" above his name over a red brick surface. Inside the lobby of the building will be another homage to Milk. A photo of the existing mural is expected to be included in that installation when the building reopens in early November.

Schwartzenberg, who lives near the park, said in an e-mail that both artworks are intended to "celebrate the historic importance of Harvey Milk as a leader in the LGBT community as well as his progressive urban politics – envisioning cities of the future."

According to the San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council, on May 26, 1979, the city renamed its Recreational Arts Building as the Harvey Milk Recreational Center in honor of the slain supervisor, who was assassinated in his City Hall office five months prior in 1978.

Then in 1988 muralist Johanna Poethig unveiled her famous Harvey Milk mural. On her Web site she describes the mural as Milk "painted in his victory pose on top of the image of himself dressed as a clown, with his beloved dog in the foreground. The other figures represent the activities at the recreation center."

The naming of the building and the mural are believed to be the first public tributes to Milk after his death. Poethig and friends of the slain supervisor said this week they are saddened by the mural's demise.

"It is a significant loss to the city. It was the first thing in the city to memorialize Milk," said Joey Cain, co-chair of the Harvey Milk City Hall Memorial Committee, which will unveil a bronze bust of Milk on May 22. [See story, page 4.] "That is sad, but I know the challenges of trying to save murals, public works of art like that."

Dan Nicoletta, who also co-chairs the memorial committee and fought in the past to see the mural saved, said this week he has accepted the paintings' fate. He said while he favored restoration of the mural, doing so would be too expensive.

"Even though I have a fondness of it, it is time to move on," said Nicoletta, who was close friends with Milk in the 1970s and worked in his camera shop.

Poethig said four years ago Rec and Park officials contacted her about saving the mural. At the time, she said she was given four months to raise the money needed to restore the mural, which the city estimated would cost roughly $45,000.

"It was a ridiculous deadline. You need at least a year to raise the funds," said Poethig, who is currently on the faculty at the Institute for Visual and Public Art at California State University, Monterey Bay. "They really just wanted to paint it out. Park and Rec wants to redo the building and nobody wants to deal with the mural."

More recently Poethig e-mailed city officials again asking that they come up with some way to save her mural.

"My feeling is it needs to be restored. I understand the building is going to be refurbished. But I do think they should have paid the respect to the fact it is one of the earliest memorials to Harvey and also part of the mural movement of a particular time in San Francisco," she said.

A Rec and Park document from September of 2004 states that city codes prohibit the art enrichment budget to be used for the restoration of murals and that the project budget "is not sufficient to provide for mural restoration at this time."

The department's spokeswoman, Rose Dennis, told the Bay Area Reporter this week it was her recollection that "there was some question" whether Poethig would be available to do the restoration. Minutes of an arts commission committee meeting in January 2005 indicate that due to Poethig's "interest in focusing full-time on her current projects," staff recommended that the mural be removed.

Surveys done in 2004 found little support for saving the murals, though Poethig criticized the wording of the query. Dennis added that after numerous community meetings a decision was made to scrap the Milk mural to make way for the renovations to the building.

"Everybody agreed it had faded and didn't pay homage to him like it did when it was painted there," Dennis said. "If the public had picked option A at the time, which was just repairing all the systems in the building and not replacing its footprint, then restoring the mural would have been a cost-reasonable possibility. The reconfiguring aspects of the building would make the mural restoration a much more complicated situation.

"There was community consent to finally kind of let it go," added Dennis.

The mural has sparked controversy since Poethig and her friend Rick Terry, who both lived near the park in the 1980s, first proposed it be painted o

An artist's rendering of the exterior of the rec center with a quote from Harvey Milk. Illustration: Michael Davis and Susan Schwartzenberg
n the east-facing wall of the rec center. A deputy mayor who lived by the park, however, objected to the placement, and even after it was moved to its current location, it was approved by only one vote, recalled Poethig.

"It was hard won," she said.

Terry died of AIDS shortly after the mural was unveiled, and Poethig dedicated it to him. A plaque honoring the mural and Terry will be placed on the renovated building.

"To their credit, the art commission made an effort to maintain an image of it. But nothing is like the mural," said Poethig, who now lives in Oakland. "Personally, to me coming up with a quote sounds fairly boring for the person Harvey was, but c'est la vie."

Nicoletta, who helped select the artists commissioned to create the new artworks and consulted with them on the project, said that based on the draft drawings of the pieces, he expects them to be "great."

"I am confident what Susan produces will be equally compelling," compared to the mural, he said.

Schwartzenberg is a senior artist at the Exploratorium and has created numerous public art installations throughout the Bay Area. She said that the graphic representation on the back wall of the rec center comes from "A City of Neighborhoods," a speech Milk delivered after his inauguration to the Board of Supervisors in 1978.

"First of all, a lot of my work deals with civil rights and people's struggle, especially activists, to find a way to gather momentum around their issues that reach a wide audience," said Schwartzenberg in a phone interview. "Even though he is so important for the gay community – and principally he is your man – I think his message was much broader than that. He was a politician who understood how important it was to bring constituents together."

The outdoor artwork is being funded by a $2,000 donation from the Friends of Duboce Park and $1,500 from Hal Fischer and an anonymous donor. Fischer, a gay man who is the outgoing secretary of the friends group, said he wanted to see some form of art on the outside of the building to replace the mural.

"In removing the mural, what is there that signifies Harvey Milk in any of this? I felt people would not know why that center was particularly named for Harvey," said Fischer. "It seemed like a great opportunity to get something back into the mix that memorialized Harvey."

The lobby installation is a set of photo studies of Milk's life dubbed the Obscura. The city's Arts Commission budgeted $69,000 toward the piece.

"It will be a glass wall of semi-transparent images [that] creates a visual biography of Harvey Milk's life, in front of it is a sequence of images of his professional career set in a ladder like structure – the centerpiece is a camera obscura which brings a projected image of Duboce Park into the lobby of the rec center," explained Schwartzenberg in an e-mail.

The artists are also creating other displays that will play up the center's history as a place of drama, dance, and photography. Props and costumes used in past city-sponsored productions will be put on display in the lobby while photos taken by people who used the photo center will adorn its entrance.

"When we met the community and learned what goes on in that rec center, it grew to be a few more pieces than just the one," said Schwartzenberg.

The most controversial aspect of the renovation project has to do with what will not be built – a small theater for theatrical productions. Since the three-story, 19,800 square foot building was constructed in 1954, the city has wanted to add a theater to it.

But funding for the project has never been found. A parks bond proposal passed by voters in 2000 had initially called for building the theater. But when planning began in 2003 for the $9.2 million rec center project, city officials concluded there wasn't enough money for it. Dennis did not rule out the possibility of there being a theater built on the site in the future.

However, that is cold comfort to Fischer, who said the city missed out on a golden opportunity to realize its vision with the planned renovation. He blamed Supervisor Bevan Dufty for not upholding a promise to raise the funds privately.

"I think an opportunity was lost," said Fischer, who criticized Dufty's pushing to spend money to build a dog play area in the park. "This is an example of our elected officials and their sense of misguided priorities."

Dennis said it is no one's fault because it is a promise not kept for nearly 60 years.

"It is irresponsible to point the finger at one elected official," she said. "We didn't build the stage in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s and here we were in the late 1990s singing the same song. It's crazy but it was reality."

Dufty said he attempted to find philanthropists willing to help pay for the theater but no one was interested.

"I did lot of public outreach ... and there wasn't any interest. I didn�t get even a nibble," said Dufty.

As for the mural being painted over, he said he was not aware that was the department's plan until told about it by a reporter. He said he had not received any complaints about the mural's removal, and that he "will be hopeful" that new art installations give Milk the recognition he deserves.

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