When Melinda McCrary (M.A., Museum Studies, ’13), got wind of a 10-foot-long New Deal-era mural that had been missing for decades from Richmond’s main post office, she immediately set out to hunt it down.
The mural by Victor Arnautoff, a former assistant to Diego Rivera, showed blue-collar workers, people buying groceries and the city’s oil refineries. It was one of many he did in the 1930s and 1940s under a federally funded program that encouraged artists to create public art works reflective of the American scene.
The downtown post office underwent a renovation in 1976, and the mural was apparently rolled up, stashed away in a basement and forgotten. But many thought it had been tossed in the trash.
“I kind of got a bee in my bonnet and I just started asking questions,” said McCrary, the executive director at the Richmond Museum of History. “And then I found this janitor. The lights had been out in this one room for who knows how long. Maybe years. He shone his flashlight on this 12-foot-high crate and I said, ‘There it is.’”
That was in 2015. Later this month, a full-scale photographic reproduction will be shown at San Francisco State University’s Special Collections Gallery as part of a Labor Archives and Research Center exhibit on Arnautoff, now widely recognized as a leading artist of the era.
The exhibit was co-curated by Professor Emeritus of History Robert Cherny, one of the founders of the Labor Archives, which was established in 1985 to preserve the region’s working-class history. Cherny recently published a book about the artist — Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art. Like his mentor, Diego Rivera, Arnautoff wanted art to be accessible to the masses and his murals were intended to be moving and to stimulate thinking, Cherny said.