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Rafael Navarro Barajas' 1967 murals at Medical Park Tower in Austin won't be walled off

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
The 1967 Rafael Navarro Barajas murals in the north lobby of the Medical Park Tower.

For months, a group of Austinites led by singer-songwriter Sara Hickman has protested a plan to wall off a pair of lobby murals painted by Mexican artist Rafael Navarro Barajas, seen by visitors to Medical Park Tower on West 38th Street since 1967. Now, it sounds like they still will be seen by future art fans.

As the American-Statesman reported last fall, the building's renovation plan had called for the murals to be encapsulated, or hidden from view behind walls. “Each single canvas is adhered to the wall it is mounted upon and we have been advised there is a very high risk that any attempt to remove the paintings will result in significant damage to the paintings,” a spokeswoman for Chicago-based Lillibridge Healthcare Services, which operates the medical facility, said at the time.

In August, Hickman alerted the arts and historical communities that the murals were in danger, after spotting signs about the plans posted near the murals. Since then, she has led an effort to save them by contacting dignitaries, preservationists and museum leaders.

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On March 4, Dan Minning, a representative for Lillibridge, said that his company would not encapsulate the murals after all. 

"I am happy to report that we have been working with expert art preservationists," Minning said in an email, "and they have determined there is a safe method for preserving and relocating the murals. We are working with them and others to find an appropriate museum or location for the murals to be preserved and displayed."

Sylvia Orozco, director of the Mexic-Arte Museum, was delighted by the news.

"The preservation of the Rafael Navarro Barajas murals (is) of great importance for the Mexican and Mexican American as well as the general community in Austin," she said. "Mexic-Arte Museum is interested in pursuing the possibility of permanently housing the murals (here)."

The midcentury-style Medical Park Tower was designed in 1967 by the noted firm Fehr & Granger. The two beloved murals are both 9-by-29 feet and covered with a complex cosmology. As reported by the Statesman in 2018, the origin of the murals can be found in a paper written in 1967 by Thomas M. Cranfill.

“On the afternoon and evening of Aug. 25, 1967, a brilliant company gathered in the ancient Teatro Arbeu in Mexico City to see for the first and last time in Mexico the two murals Rafael Navarro has executed for Medical Park Tower in Austin,” Cranfill wrote. “The murals, oil on canvas, each 9 feet tall and 29 feet long, are soon to be divested of their stretcher sticks, rolled up, and sent to Austin.”

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Navarro Barajas, born in Michoacan, Mexico, of Tarascan background, studied at the San Carlos Academy of Art in Mexico (with Manuel Rodriguez Lozano and Armando Valdes) and then went to Paris for further study. He worked in traditional genres, including portraits, landscapes and still-life drawings and paintings.

After the murals were vandalized in 1984, they were restored by the artist and again by conservator Mark van Gelder in 2006 and 2007.

"Such great news," said Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea about the new plans. "And I join in thanking Sara Hickman for her heroism in pushing to save these murals! Bravo!"

"On behalf of the Consulate General of Mexico in Austin and the government of Mexico, many thanks for preserving these murals," said Deputy Consul Jorge E. Salcido Zugasti, "which are (the) cultural heritage for both our countries."