Large panel from Bernard Zakheim's "History of Medicine in California." (Photo/Courtesy UCSF Archives & Special Collections)
Large panel from Bernard Zakheim's "History of Medicine in California." (Photo/Courtesy UCSF Archives & Special Collections)

Jewish muralist’s historic work faces demolition at UCSF

How does a significant piece of public art go from being the “jewel of the University’s art collection” to a work designated for the wrecking ball in just five years?

That is the question the descendants of the 20th-century Jewish artist Bernard Zakheim are asking UCSF Medical Center, which on June 4 sent a legal letter to a member of the family saying that the murals he painted in the 1930s could be destroyed to make way for construction of a new building.

The 10-panel series “History of Medicine in California,” which Zakheim produced between 1935 and 1938, was commissioned by UCSF and partly funded by the Works Project Administration. Installed in Toland Hall, a lecture room inside UC Hall, the vivid images of doctors, lab scientists, suffering and recovered patients have been studied by generations of medical students — except for one 20-year period after a particular professor objected that the art was a distraction from the lectures and the university wallpapered it over.

Since freed from that censorship, for decades the university has promoted the art as a visual symbol of its humanistic values. In 2015, as part of the institution’s 150th anniversary, the public was allowed to tour the murals, and UCSF archivist Polina Ilieva wrote a blog describing them as “the jewel of the University’s art collection.”

Physicians on the faculty have recorded lectures elucidating the details of the murals to classes and the public, including a 1996 presentation in which Dr. Robert Schindler lauded the murals as “the product of an extraordinary individual.”

But now that UC Hall is scheduled to be torn down starting in 2022 to make way for a 27,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art research and academic building — part of a multiyear, multibillion overhaul of the Parnassus campus, paid for in part by a $500 million gift from the Helen Diller Foundation — those values have come into question.

“Up until very recently my impression was that the UCSF administration understood the value of the murals as history and as art and wanted to preserve and conserve them,” said Robert Cherny, professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State and author of “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art” and many articles about the artists of the New Deal era, including Zakheim. “An earlier plan was to convert Toland Hall into a community center so that more of the public could see the murals. The new plan is an abrupt turnaround by the university administration.”

Zakheim, a major artist of the period who immigrated from Poland to San Francisco in 1920 and studied fresco technique and painting with Mexican artist Diego Rivera, already had made a name for himself as a muralist when UCSF commissioned the work. Most notedly, he had spearheaded the 1934 Coit Tower mural project, which resulted in murals by 25 local artists depicting California life.

But of all Zakheim’s output, the massive Toland Hall murals are his largest single work, Cherny said.

According to Nathan Zakheim, his father “considered those to be his greatest murals. They are extremely powerful works.”

Cherny regards Bernard Zakheim as “one of the most prominent of the New Deal artists; I’d place him in a group of the top three on the Pacific Coast, with Victor Arnautoff and Lucien Labaudt, who painted the Beach Chalet mural.”

Zakheim was also a Jewish artist with “a commitment to Jewish culture,” Cherny said.

Leah Royall, one of Zakheim’s granddaughters, remembers him as “a character” who spoke five languages in addition to his native Polish.

“In his dusty house on the Sebastopol property that he called Farm Arts, he’d stomp around singing Yiddish songs. He used to glue articles from the Jewish Bulletin [now J.] into his typewritten letters to us, and he loved talking politics. This was a man who opposed ‘art for art’s sake’ — life and his art were informed by his left-wing political convictions,” Royall told J.

In 1933, Zakheim created the mural “The Wedding Ceremony” for the JCC of San Francisco. When the old building was torn down for a new one that opened in 2004, the Zakheim family fought for the work’s preservation, and the JCC ultimately agreed to remove the mural and reintegrate it into the new facility.

Erasing artwork that is historically significant to both San Francisco and California stands in stark contrast to the university’s original vision.

In its letter to Nathan Zakheim, as well as in an official statement explaining its proposal to replace UC Hall, UCSF cited the conclusions of two historic preservation firms that the removal of the murals prior to demolition would result in irreparable damage to the works.

“UCSF has decided not to use public funds to physically preserve the murals, especially at a time when the UC system faces financial challenges in the wake of Covid-19. This decision in no way has to do with any complaints about the murals,” the university said in its official statement. After requesting additional comment from the administration, J. was referred back to the statement.

The UCSF letter offered the Zakheim family a 90-day period to submit a proposal to remove the murals at their own expense, after which the university said it would make a public announcement calling for other proposals to remove and take possession of the murals within an additional 120 days.

The university’s estimate of the cost of removal is around $8 million.

Nathan Zakheim, 76, an art conservator based in Los Angeles, says that figure is unnecessarily high. In phone conversations with Brian Newman, UCSF’s senior associate vice chancellor in charge of campus space planning, design, construction and management, the artist’s elder son said he believed he could get the job done for under $1 million. The ace up his sleeve is the fact that his father taught him how to remove the murals during the time when they worked together to remove and restore two other murals in UCSF’s Cole Hall in 1967.

“These murals can be removed,” Cherny concurs. “Bernard Zakheim foresaw that eventuality and planned for it, and taught Nathan the technique. That is what the UCSF administration doesn’t seem to acknowledge.”

Bernard Zakheim with son Nathan in 1967 discussing mural removal and restoration at UCSF. (Photo/Courtesy UCSF Archives & Special Collections)
Bernard Zakheim with son Nathan in 1967 discussing mural removal and restoration at UCSF. (Photo/Courtesy UCSF Archives & Special Collections)

The far-flung family of Zakheim’s descendants have united in a response to the university that prioritizes the preservation of the murals.

“Ninety days is an unreasonable amount of time, and the clock is already ticking,” said Zakheim grandson Adam Gottstein, 64. “I don’t want to get into the politics of it; my hyperfocus is to find a resolution that will save the work from demolition.”

Zakheim’s daughter, 97-year-old Ruth Gottstein, a lifelong social activist and former independent publisher, dictated an irate letter from her assisted-living facility in Jackson, Amador County.

“It is egregious to me that people today assign themselves the moral right to decide what should happen to these historic and irreplaceable pieces of art. They were painted in 1935! These were the thoughts and principles of the artists at that time. To destroy them is to willfully ignore what was taking place in our world and arbitrarily erase significant portions of our history and evolution. Nobody has that kind of authority. Nobody.”

She called the university’s offer to commission a “three-dimensional digital recording” of the artwork in lieu of preserving the physical murals “a travesty.”

Ruth Gottstein’s niece, Bethany Stark, took “umbrage” at the university’s a priori decision to destroy the murals unless the family took them away.

“These are works that have artistic, historical and community value,” Stark said by phone from L.A. “They belong to the community, to the public and to the university. The murals are not just some antique chair that they can say, ‘It doesn’t work anymore, do you want it back?”

Royall, an editor in London, shared the outrage, describing the university’s decision as “criminal short-sightedness.”

“Erasing artwork that is historically significant to both San Francisco and California stands in stark contrast to the university’s original vision,” Royall said.

Ruth Gottstein also says that the history, ideas and research integrated into the murals continue to provide value for present and future generations.

“At a time of a global health care–based pandemic,” she points out, “the need for the ‘messaging’ in my father’s works in Toland Hall are ironically more applicable today than ever.”

“It is my hope that we can extend the deadline in order to come up with a collaborative solution to save my grandfather’s murals,” Adam Gottstein wrote in his own June 15 letter to UCSF.

Arts and preservation organizations and concerned individuals around the city are rousing to the cause. On June 23, S.F. Supervisor Aaron Peskin planned to introduce a resolution to the Board of Supervisors to designate the murals as historic landmarks. The motion would have to be taken up by the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Department. While such a designation would not legally protect the murals, because the university is a state institution, “I wouldn’t initiate this process if I didn’t believe the murals merit protection, and I hope this symbolic action helps to bring the university to its senses,” Peskin told J.

Meanwhile, Nathan Zakheim says his ongoing discussions with the university have been good so far.

“I’m not approaching this as an activist,” he said. “I’m a technician. I know how to take murals off walls, and that’s what I want to do.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.