The SF Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to initiate a process to designate the famed Diego Rivera mural at the San Francisco Art Institute's Chestnut Street campus a city landmark, in order to prevent it from being sold and removed. But the financially strapped school is begging the board not to go down this path right now, because even if they don't sell the mural they need to use the asset to secure a loan.
As one of three murals that Rivera painted in San Francisco between 1931 and 1940, the 1931 mural titled The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City is a unique and self-referential fresco that shows Rivera celebrating the industrial worker and contemplating all the forces that come into play in the creation of a piece of art. And, as KQED notes, it features "the artist’s [own] broad backside" at the center, sitting on scaffolds while painting, along with "anonymous steel riveters, industrial laborers, then-SFAI president William Gerstle and Coit Tower architect Arthur Brown, Jr."
As SFist reported last week via the New York Times, there's a rumor that George Lucas's Museum of Narrative Art is interested the fresco, which is reportedly worth $50 million, and this is money that the SFAI sorely needs as it tries to crawl out from under a crushing debt.* But talk of selling and relocating the mural is "heresy," says Supervisor Aaron Peskin. And he along with Supervisors Myrna Melgar and Hillary Ronen cosponsored a resolution Tuesday to initiate the landmark designation process.
Noting that the piece is in lineage with the Mission Mural movement in San Francisco, and that it "has inspired generations of artists, including alumni of the San Francisco Art Institute, and countless members of the public, alike," the resolution sets in motion a process by the Planning Department and Historic Preservation Commission that would keep it in San Francisco in perpetuity.
The chair of SFAI's board of trustees Pam Rorke Levy wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors Monday urging them to wait "at least a month" before making any historic designation. "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 said.
Last March, the SFAI suspended enrollment and appeared on the brink of total ruin — with the pandemic having kicked it while it was already down. In July, the school appeared to be on some path to recovery — the entire Chestnut Street campus was put up as collateral for a $19.7 million loan from a private bank several years ago, and the University of California bought that debt to help save the school though now the SFAI is in debt to the UC Regents, as the New York Times reported last week.
The SFAI alumni and faculty communities are reportedly appalled at the board's use of the mural as a "mere commodity," with an email from adjunct faculty saying that the notion "undermines its school’s own pedagogy."
It remains to be seen if the Board of Supervisors moves forward with the landmark designation, or how this latest drama will play out — in her letter, Levy suggested the city might want to lend the school some cash of its own in exchange for "a financial interest in the mural," and Peskin scoffed and said the city is not the school's bank.
*This post has been corrected to say that there was a rumor of interest in the piece from the museum, but no actual offer.