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September 9, 2009 > History: Hayward's Public Art Controversy

History: Hayward's Public Art Controversy

By Marcess Owings, Curatorial Assistant

Art can be described as many things: beautiful, picturesque, emotional... ugly, crazy, nonsensical. Everyone can form a comment about or connect with a work of art. But public art can often be the most controversial, especially when there is $100,000 involved. This may sound like the set-up for a juicy art scandal in a major metropolis, but it is really a story right out of Hayward.

As Hayward geared up for a centennial celebration in 1976, many projects were underway to commemorate the monumental event. The (then) new city hall on Foothill Boulevard had just been completed and a book on Hayward's history was in the works. Another project was a mural for the lobby of Centennial Hall that would illustrate and pay tribute to Hayward's rich history.

Centennial Hall was the former gym of Hayward Union High School. While the rest of the high school was torn down to make way for the new city hall and shopping center, the city did some minor renovations, turning the gym into a convention center. The building was aptly renamed in honor of the city's centennial. Commissioning an artist to create a mural for the building seemed like the perfect addition to the building and simple to complete. The project was even approved for a matching grant of up to $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In May 1977, a committee of representatives from Hayward and NEA met to consider which artist to hire.

After reviewing slides and resumes of some 150 artists, the committee unanimously selected William T. Wiley. Wiley, a Bay Area transplant was a highly acclaimed contemporary artist whose artwork was featured at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) as well as other galleries and museums across the country. Art critic Jerome Tarshis referred to Wiley as "one of the most imitated artists in the United States" in a 1974 article in ARTnews. Surely, Wiley was the artist for the job.

Wiley's terms for the project were a little eccentric: no contract and no sketches were to be shown to Hayward's city council prior to the final work. The artist also stated that he would not paint directly on the walls of Centennial Hall, but would paint 10x16 foot panels of canvas instead. The exact number of canvases was to be determined by when Wiley felt he was done with the piece. The first panel would be shown to the council for approval when it was completed.

Mayor Ilene Weinreb stated at the beginning of the process, "We have a strong local art association, so we have a good strong local basis for the support of public art. Hayward is ready for this." However, the response after the presentation of the first panel in December 1977 might suggest otherwise. The painting consisted of an abstracted landscape depicting imagery of many stereotypical ideas of the "Old West" with just a few specific references to Hayward's past. In the center of the painting was a Wiley trademark, a square of black and white blocks representing yin and yang. The painting was not a traditional representation of Hayward's pastoral history.

Wiley claimed that the bright colorful scene was filled with positive artistic stereotypes, but some found these stereotypes to be generic and derogatory toward Hayward and its history. Some people questioned why Wiley appeared to hate Hayward, while others could not understand why the council did not commission local muralists to do the work.

The response to the first panel sparked the question as to whether or not the city council would move forward with the project. The council was willing to continue if Wiley would supply sketches. They wanted imagery that echoed the area and was more recognizable as Hayward. Wiley was not one to compromise on the terms though. Hayward could either pay for the project when it was complete or they could reject it and he would sell it to someone else. The council agreed. Wiley stated in an interview, "If there is enough positive reaction so that the painting stays in Hayward that would be nice. If there isn't, that's OK, too."

The final work consisted of two more panels in addition to the first, but these two were in stark contrast to the original. Mostly black and white, one panel featured images from Hayward's past and present, including Wiley striding toward Centennial Hall with the murals tucked under his arm. The other panel is a view of the Bay Area shown from Hayward's perspective and featured sayings like "Nomad is an island" and "Support your local color."

Upon its completion in the fall of 1978, the mural sat in Wiley's studio for three months before Wiley's representatives approached Henry Hopkins, director of SFMOMA. Hopkins offered to hang the mural for twenty-five days at SFMOMA, and during the first five days only Hayward council members, administrators, and their guests were able to view the piece.

The panels received a lot of negative criticism from Hayward residents, but Wiley explained that he had created the painting from images in his own mind after reading Hayward...The First 100 Years history book. He did not intend to represent Hayward alone, but Hayward, the Bay Area, California, and the whole world.

Critics of the work claimed that Wiley had not finished it, since the panels were largely black and white. Some thought he was trying to cheat the city and that his view of suburban living was negative. One council member said, "We didn't commission him to spit on us." However, rather than vote on whether or not to accept the mural, the council postponed its decision until just before the June 1979 deadline for the NEA grant. Rumors circulated that if Hayward backed out of buying the mural, other potential buyers like the Whitney Museum in New York were already lining up.

The city council voted four to three in favor of purchasing the mural. However, it took some time to raise the additional $50,000 to purchase it. Finally, late in 1979, Mayor Weinreb and council member Monte Florence threw their full support behind the painting and got the parent company of Mervyns, the Dayton-Hudson Foundation, to donate the additional money. Finally, Hayward owned an original Wiley.

The work still hangs high on a wall in the lobby of Centennial Hall. Many people probably do not know of the paintings existence or notice it when they visit the building for various events. Considering that Hayward does not have many pieces of public art, the fact that the city does have an original work by such a well-known artist is amazing, whether you personally like the piece or not. The controversy surrounding the painting just makes it more interesting.

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