CAMBRIDGE — An emotional debate over the fate of a Martin Luther King Jr.-themed mural on a condemned school building named for King has evolved into a pledge by the city to take a more active role in caring for its schoolhouse art.
Demolition of the Martin Luther King Jr. School on Putnam Avenue is scheduled to begin within weeks, and a new school of the same name will be erected on the site. For several months, Cambridge-based artist David Fichter and an alliance of parents, former students, and teachers contended with officials over the city’s seeming unwillingness to promise a home for the mural, titled “Furthering the Dream,” on or in the new building.
“You have to understand that over 600 people worked on this mural back in the late ’80s through June 1990 when it was finished,” Fichter says of the mural, which is 88 feet long and about 23 feet high at its tallest point.
“It really was a community work done by that school community,” he says. “It doesn’t just feature Dr. King, but it depicts the different stages of his life. It has a general civil rights theme, and it even depicts the story of women’s suffrage. And most important to this conversation, when the mural was completed and celebrated, we — the people who worked on it and city officials — made a declaration that we should do everything in our power to make sure the mural is here forever.”
Controversy over the mural’s possible demise echoed an earlier debate over the destruction of the King School building itself. Designed by Josep Lluis Sert, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and opened in the early 1970s, the building was ordered destroyed last summer. The city had determined that renovating the structure and bringing it up to environmental standards would be impractical. Some residents argued the building was an architectural treasure that shouldn’t be torn down, but they were overruled.
Fast-forward to early January, and Fichter and his supporters were at odds with the city over what portion, if any, of the 77-panel artwork could be saved and mounted on the new MLK school building. One side argued that the mural’s historic theme alone was enough justification to preserve it, and the other side said the mural simply might not fit on or in the new building — and might even be too weather-beaten to transfer.
But in a meeting Jan. 14 that included Fichter, several parents from the school community, Mayor Henrietta Davis, and school district chief operating officer James P. Maloney, an agreement was reached to preserve the mural and find a way to incorporate at least part of it into the new building. That night the City Council voted to preserve the mural and store it while the new school is constructed. And on Jan. 15, all seven members of the School Committee voted to support preservation of the mural and finding some way to work it into the new building.
Beyond determining the fate of the MLK mural, the debate exposed a logistical problem in the city’s stewardship of artworks: There are dozens, maybe a hundred or more artworks in schools that were not officially commissioned by the city, created instead as grassroots projects by students, art teachers, and parents. With no record of the condition of such artworks and no one designated to look after them, questions will undoubtedly arise as other schools are renovated or replaced in coming years.
The recent City Council and School Committee votes should help the city deal with such artworks in the future.
“We’re taking a bigger look, stepping back, because we’re going to have buildings in renovation for many years to come,” says Davis. “No one wanted [the MLK] mural destroyed, but it really did open our eyes.”
Jason Weeks, executive director of the Cambridge Arts Council, agreed with Davis.
“I don’t think anyone would question the city of Cambridge’s commitment to public art,” says Weeks, whose organization is tasked with commissioning, funding, and maintaining public art in the city. “But what we learned during this confusion over the Martin Luther King school mural are two things: There are a lot of organic artworks in public school buildings in the city. . . . Since we had no formal role in those artworks’ creation, then we haven’t had any role in maintaining or caring for them.”
Those realizations have led the city to conclude that it needs a list of those uncommissioned artworks. But making a list shouldn’t be interpreted as a city takeover of school art projects or a means for the city to stop such informal works from being made, Weeks says.
“You want to encourage schools, places of learning, to be creative, and to have teachers and students create these artworks,” he says. “But if we don’t know what they are or how many or where, we can’t help. And then we find ourselves in the dilemma we’ve faced with the King mural, not knowing its condition and not having already had a formal plan in place to adapt it to the new school building.”
The latter part of that dilemma is important, Weeks says, because artworks formally commissioned by the city — per the Percent for Art program, which says 1 percent of a new or renovated public building’s budget must be dedicated to the placement of art in that building — are required by ordinance to be moved from doomed public buildings to new public homes. An example of Percent for Art in action would be the Vusumuzi Maduna sculpture that had until recently sat inside the Martin Luther King Jr. School on Putnam. Because the the sculpture was formally commissioned, it is guaranteed a place in the new King school building.
“That means making sure they’re properly cared for so when and if they have to move, they’re in good shape and space can be planned for them,” Weeks says. “It’s my understanding that there are parts of the King mural that may have been damaged by weather and other wear and tear. And it would be a shame if that lack of maintenance ultimately prevents portions of the mural from being reused.”
Fichter has proposed hiring teens through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program to build a record of what art exists in which school buildings.
“I think it’s not a bad idea,” Davis says. “We could then begin cataloguing and recording these school artworks over the summer.”
Fichter is cautiously optimistic.
“I hope more than a couple of panels of the [King] mural make it into the new building,” Fichter says. “But I’m also happy knowing they’re now working on a long-term policy. I’d argued from the beginning it wasn’t just about the King mural but also giving fair treatment to other legitimate artwork in public buildings that just didn’t happen to be commissioned by the city.”
Elena Saporta, whose 23-year-old daughter, Lily Consuelo, was a student at the King School in the early 2000s, is credited with coming up with the idea for the mural.
“The passion behind saving this — good passion, since it sparked a move to set a policy in place — is personal for everyone involved,” Saporta says. “Lily was a student at King. She worked on the mural. I grew up in Atlanta. And Dr. King sent his daughters to my elementary school. His daughter Yolanda was a close friend of my older sister. So I got to know the King family. And the emotional message it sent to make this mural was powerful for the kids.”
Lost in the debate over the King mural’s fate is another important message, says Cassandra Reese, who recently retired after 26 years teaching first and second grades at the King Open School, one of three schools housed over the years inside the Martin Luther King School building.
“First, I’m glad we’re all talking about a plan to take care of this type of student-driven art over the long term,” Reese says. “But what I hope everyone considers is how this mural and other work like it reflects the needs of the school. In our case at King, this mural created a unity at the school that had never existed.”
Reese, who worked on the mural herself, recalled that there wasn’t a lot of communication or cooperation among the schools in the building. “This mural forced students, parents, and teachers and administrators for all three to come together and work together to get it done,’’ she says. “And that’s the message that shouldn't get lost here. The work that went into this mural and what it did for relationships between these groups is as important as the end result.”James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.