On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 11-0 to start the process of identifying Diego Rivera’s favorite mural as a landmark after the San Francisco Institute of Art, which owns the $ 50 million painting, said its sale will help pay off $ 19.7 million in debt.
Defining the mural as a landmark would severely limit the way the 150-year-old institution could use it, and public officials behind the measure say its sale is probably not on the table for now. Removing the mural with landmark status will require approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which has broad powers.
During a public hearing on the resolution on Monday, Art Institute officials objected to the idea. Pam Rork Levy, chairman of the board of the Institute of Art, said: “Marking the mural now that there is no immediate threat of it being sold without sufficient consideration of the SFAI’s position would deprive the SFAI of its core and most valuable asset.”
The 1931 work, entitled “Making a Mural Painting Showing the Construction of a City,” is a fresco within a mural. The table depicts the creation of both a city and a mural – with dedicated architects, engineers, craftsmen, sculptors and artists. Rivera himself can be seen from behind, holding a palette and a brush, with his assistants. This is one of three San Francisco murals from the Mexican mural that has had a huge impact on other artists in the city.
Years of costly growth and declining student numbers have put SFAI in a difficult financial situation, exacerbated by the pandemic and loan default. Last July, a private bank announced it would sell the school’s collateral – including the Chestnut Street campus, the Rivera mural and 18 other works of art – before the University of California’s Board of Regents intervened to buy off the debt in October. Under a new agreement, the institute has six years to repurchase the property; if not, the University of California will take over the campus.
Faced with the threat of foreclosure, school administrators are looking for a suitable buyer, although Ms Levy says “the school’s first choice would be to give the mural on site, attracting patrons or a partner institution that would create a significant fund that would allow us to preserve, protect and present the mural to the public. “
Last month, Ms. Levy presented two options with board members and staff. One is related to the purchase of the mural for director George Lucas for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. (The museum said it would not comment on speculation about the acquisitions.) Another would see the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco take ownership of the mural but leave it on campus as an annexed space.
But a museum spokeswoman said nothing came from the early discussions. “We have no plans to acquire or donate the mural to SFAI,” Jill Lynch, SFMOMA’s communications officer, told The New York Times.
The Chestnut Street campus has been a landmark since 1977, but it is possible that the mural was sold or removed as part of the interior.
In recent days, former students and faculty have organized to oppose any sale of murals. They included renowned artist Catherine Opie, who published an open letter condemning the school board’s actions and announcing the withdrawal of a photo she had planned to sell in a fundraiser for the institute.
“I can no longer be part of a legacy that will sell out an important unique part of history,” she wrote.
Hearing that the mural was likely to receive landmark status, Ms. Opie sighed with relief.
“I’m excited and relieved,” she told The Times. “I’m tired of seeing art used as an advantage on the first line of defense of institutions.”