Amid the rise of the #MeToo movement, five women have accused Palo Alto High School alumnus James Franco of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior. While Franco has denied these claims and has not been convicted, such negative attention shed upon the movie star begs the question: What is his impact on our school and what should become of the artwork he contributed to Paly?
This week, the large mural on the side of the Student Center was painted over and the administration has considered taking down additional paintings of his in both the student center and the Media Arts Center (MAC). However, many paintings remain on our walls. If even one of the accusations against Franco proves to be true, or if more women come forward with similar stories, Paly will become known for promoting the artwork of a sexual predator, and that’s not a reputation we want.
Accusations aside, many applaud the removal of Franco’s artwork. In fact, the first of the two Franco murals in the Student Center was removed a full two years ago — long before the sexual misconduct allegations hit the news.
Franco’s murals are objectively dark in nature. Faceless characters formed from strong strokes of black and gray don’t reflect the cheerful, friendly atmosphere that Palo Alto Unified School District aims to foster in its schools, goals evidenced by weekly therapy dog visits and a well-stocked Wellness Center. It is clear the dark environment depicted in Franco’s paintings isn’t representative of Paly.
“I don’t enjoy looking at them,” said senior Ida Sunneras-Jonssan. “It’s not aesthetically pleasing because of how cluttered and messy they are.”
Paly has an amazing visual arts program, with talented student artists channeling their inner creativity into their work. The abundant wall space that could be used to exhibit more student artwork has been taken by Franco, who graduated from Paly in 1996. That’s 22 years ago, well before any of today’s Paly students were even born.
“When the Franco pictures came up, it was very dominant,” said librarian Rachel Kellerman. “That was fine for a while, but it’s important that we showcase all kinds of styles.”
I’ll be honest: I didn’t pay too much attention to Franco or his paintings before the Golden Globe Awards. I thought the paintings were gloomy and that was it. Franco’s award for Best Actor last month at the Globes catapulted him into the limelight once again and the allegations that followed have kept him there. Now is the time for Paly to have this discussion, while it can still be called relevant. We are experiencing a rare moment in time when things are happening: a hashtag has evolved into a movement that has shaken Hollywood — in fact, the world — to its core.
“It’s a good community conversation. I think it needs to be a bigger dialogue.”
Paly Art Teacher Kate McKenzie
The presence of Franco’s art on Paly’s walls doesn’t just acknowledge him as an alum, it highlights his successful career and, by extension, his behavior in that career. In fact, hanging huge paintings on multiple walls serves to glorify him. It says, “Hey, here’s this guy who we respect enough to give valuable wall space to. Isn’t he great?” Obviously, Paly can and should acknowledge Franco as an alumnus, but we don’t need hundreds of square feet of painted canvas to accomplish that.
As a Paly student, I’m not uncomfortable knowing Franco attended my school. Obviously I can’t know the truth about the sexual assault allegations, which he has denied.
However, the scandal around Franco hits close to home when one story involves him, at 35, trying to arrange a hookup with a 17-year-old, a girl not even half his age. The paintings make me uncomfortable because they darken an already-heavy environment. They force us to confront an inevitable question: how could a powerful man with a perfectly clean slate get accused of such inappropriate behavior? How likely is it that he is totally innocent?
The process of removing Franco’s glory from the walls of our school is already underway, prompted by parents and teachers who raised concerns after learning about the sexual misconduct allegations. Principal Kim Diorio said the paintings were always a loan, not a gift.
“Any paintings taken down that have been donated to us would be returned to Franco directly. They have always been ‘on loan’ to Paly and not ours to keep.”
So now, our community must seize this opportunity to use the open space for something new that really represents Paly and its amazing student body. Maybe something with less baggage and more color?