The proposed sale of a famed Diego Rivera mural at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), which administrators have said would raise much needed funds for the struggling school, has drawn criticism from local artists and city leaders, leading to a last minute move to protect it. The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City was commissioned by the university in 1931 and is now valued at $50 million. “This is an incredibly unconscionable decision,” the artist and SFAI alumn Catherine Opie wrote in an open letter. “Of course, I want SFAI to survive, but not by gutting one of the most important artworks in the history of the institution.”
The 150-year-old school is facing significant financial hardship, nearly losing its campus and art collection as it prepared to close for good last spring, until the University of California decided to pay off the institute’s $19.7m bank debt. Spokeswoman Sara Fitzmaurice told the Los Angeles Times that the school now has up to six years to pay off its debt to the UC, plus interest and minus its lease payments, if it wants to reclaim ownership of the property. Otherwise, the University of California will take over the campus and SFAI will have to vacate.
The situation was further complicated on Tuesday afternoon, when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 11-0 in favour of giving the mural landmark status, specifically citing concerns about its potential sale. In response, the school board’s chairwoman, Pam Rorke Levy wrote a letter asking the supervisors to delay their decision “for at least a month,” voicing the board’s desire to find a plan that would allow them to keep the mural on the SFAI campus, while noting that “landmarking the mural now will prevent us from using it—SFAI’s only significant asset—to secure the $7 million bridge loan we need to make it through the pandemic and rebuild our enrollment over the next two years.” Levy adds that “the mural’s fate is inextricably linked to the fate of the San Francisco Art Institute. If we cannot raise the funds and public support necessary to rebuild our programs, faculty, and enrollment post-pandemic, we cannot continue to safeguard the mural, as we have for the last 90 years.”
San Francisco’s District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who sponsored the landmark status, told the Bay Area’s KQED that such a process usually takes “60-120 days depending on how fast things happen,” though he noted that, because SFAI’s entire campus has been deemed a landmark since 1977, this could already complicate a sale of the mural which is, technically, a part of the architecture. The legal document that grants landmark status to the Chestnut Street campus even makes specific mention of the mural, noting that when Rivera came to SFAI for the commission, he believed the designated wall was too small so instead “he selected the largest wall in the school”. It also notes that Rivera was paid $1,500 by then-school president William Gerstle to paint the mural, the equivalent of $25,500 now.
Calling the decision to sell the painting “sickening” in her letter, Opie asked the board “to dig deep in your own pockets in raising an endowment for the preservation of SFAI that is truly reflective of the community of philanthropists of the Bay Area”, which has “more millionaires and billionaires geographically than most cities in America”. Opie added that she would be removing a photograph of hers from an upcoming auction of works by SFAI alumni. “Artists are asked to be philanthropists; it is truly important that my work can create an ability of helping organizations with their future. The Board of Trustees has abused this in not making the gesture of donations themselves. The time is now, generosity is met with generosity,” she wrote.
The school’s board has read Opie’s letter “values her input,” says Doug Hall, a board member and professor emeritus. He emphasised that SFAI has not finalised a decision to sell the mural and that the board shares Opie’s assessment that the work “goes far beyond being a financial asset of the institution,” adding that the board “has a profound responsibility to safeguard it”. Hall adds that, “no decision relating to the mural will be undertaken without first engaging the community in an open dialogue”. As fiduciaries of the school, however, the board “is required to put forward, assess and review all channels to save the school and secure its long-term viability, which is the Board’s primary responsibility,” he says.
Several other options have been floated that could allow the mural to remain at the SFAI campus, which might not only dampen the controversy around its sale but would also mitigate the risk of removing and shipping the work. The conservator Rosa Lowinger told the Los Angeles Times this would not only be a major logistical endeavour, but that it could cost up to $2m to pursue, not counting the cost of repairing the campus building from which the mural would be removed. “Our first choice would be to endow the mural in place, attracting patrons or a partner institution that would create a substantial fund that would enable us to preserve, protect and present the mural to the public,” board chairwoman Levy, told The New York Times earlier this month.
It has been suggested that one such option could be for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to purchase the mural while allowing it to remain on the campus as a sort of museum annex, but a spokeswoman for SFMoMA told The Art Newspaper that the institution has “no plans to purchase or endow the SFAI mural”. Other interested parties reportedly include George Lucas, who would potentially relocate the mural to the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, though a spokeswoman for the institution says that it “does not comment on speculation about acquisitions”.