Returning to that niggling question of ownership, the Smithsonian announced Saturday that it would withdraw it’s bid to purchase two 1949 mural from a historic building in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Smithsonian’s statement read, “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.” The murals are being sold as part of the liquidation of the failed insurance company, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co., which has already successfully sold many of the company’s photographs and smaller easel paintings.
The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. was the largest black-owned insurance company west of the Mississippi and for many years was the only African American owned corporation in California. Built from the ground up, by 1946 the company had grown to the point where it needed more space and began construction of a large new home office building on Adams and Western boulevards. The murals the Smithsonian was seeking to buy were painted on canvas (to protect against earthquake) in 1949 for the lobby of the newly constructed building.
Any mural, removed from the original site it was painted to inhabit, loses some of its meaning and the artists intent. But, this argument applies also to Renaissance triptychs painted for specific churches or Aztec ceramic statues intended for worship or daily use. The original company which commissioned the murals is defunct and its founders dead, how would the artwork have more meaning in the original building now occupied by a non-profit organization or in the Smithsonian Institution where it would be safeguarded against harm and preserved for future study? Also, with the Smithsonian bid no longer on the table, the murals could now be sold to the highest private bidder. Court hearings will be held Monday to determine whether the murals can be considered on of the company’s assets to be sold in the liquidation process or kept with the building.