A financial bind has the Art Institute considering selling off its prize mural for $50 million, and George Lucas is reportedly interested in buying.  

The Diego Rivera mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, on display at the SF Art Institute's Chestnut Street campus, may be the most fascinating of his three large works in the city completed between 1931 and 1940. (The others are at the City Club of San Francisco and at City College.) Rivera himself is painted into the “mural within a mural,” as is architect and Mission District native Timothy Pfleuger, and it took some diplomatic wrangling to even allow Rivera into the country to paint it in 1931, as he was a notorious active Communist.

But a pretty interesting story is taking place behind the scenes with the mural, as amidst the institute’s ongoing financial problems, Mission Local reported last week that the Institute is considering selling the mural to finance a debt deal with the University of California Regents.

In a Monday follow-up piece on Mission Local, Supervisor Aaron Peskin referred to any possible mural sale as “heresy,” and vowed to introduce legislation to include the painting in a historical preservation ordinance that would prevent any such sale. That report also cites an open letter from the SFAI Adjunct Union condemning the intent to sell, which refers to a “buyer they had lined up who needed it for ‘his museum’ in LA." The New York Times then connected some dots and reported today that “filmmaker George Lucas was interested in buying the mural for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.”

That scoop comes from a closed-door SFAI board meeting held December 17, and other options and buyers were reportedly also discussed. Another possible plan involves selling the mural to the SFMOMA, who then “would take ownership of the mural but leave it on campus as an annexed space.” Given the legal pushback and community outrage that would surely come with such a sale, a buyer who left the painting in place in return for some sort of naming or annexation deal would probably be the school’s path of least resistance.

A PR firm spokesperson tells the Times that “A number of conversations have been taking place with several institutions about the possibility to endow or acquire the mural to ensure the future of the school,” In a March interview with the Times, SFAI chairperson Pam Rorke Levy acknowledged the possibility of selling off the historic mural, saying, “When you have an asset that’s that valuable, there’s always a discussion.”  

The SF Art Institute’s financial situation was precarious even before COVID-19 had forced its permanent closure in March, a move they reversed upon raising $4 million in contributions, and selling off their current debt to the UC Board of Regents. But UC will still want their money back, is now their landlord, and can ultimately take possession of the campus if SFAI doesn’t pay up within six years. Hence the once-unthinkable possible sale of a historic diego Rivera mural in a deal with Star Wars creator George Lucas. But that deal could get worse all the time, with the Art Instute praying Lucas does not alter it further.

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Image: SF Art Institute