Smithsonian withdraws offer to buy endangered L.A. murals

In a brief statement released Saturday, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture withdrew its bid to buy an important pair of 1949 murals from a historic building in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles and relocate them to Washington.

The murals were being sold as part of an asset liquidation process for a failed insurance company.The building's new tenants, a nonprofit social services agency, has expressed a desire to keep the two paintings in the place for which they were made.

The Smithsonian statement said, "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." Because of expressions of local interest in retaining the murals, however, the museum "has respectfully decided to withdraw" its $750,000 offer.

The Smithsonian certainly can't be blamed for wanting the murals, but the museum is to be commended for its decision. The planned acquisition might have been a good idea, considering other alternatives (such as selling to a private collector); but the ideal solution is to leave them where they are. In styles indebted to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, the site-specific paintings by noted artists Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff are imposing chronicles of African American history in California -- and, not coincidentally, are themselves significant examples of it. They were painted on canvas, rather than directly on the lobby walls of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. building, to protect against potential earthquake damage.

That also means the paintings aren't out of the woods yet. Conventionally portable easel paintings, photographs and other works from the insurance company's art collection have already been sold. Court hearings get underway downtown on Monday to determine whether the murals, which were made specifically for the site, can also be taken down and sold to any bidder. Perhaps the Smithsonian's announcement will help persuade the court not to let that happen.