On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 11-0 to begin the process of designating a beloved Diego Rivera mural as a landmark after the San Francisco Art Institute, which owns the $ 50 million painting, said selling it would help to pay $ 19.7. millions of debt.
Designating the mural as a landmark would severely limit how the 150-year-old institution could exploit it, and government officials behind the measure say sales of it are likely to be off the table so far. Removing the mural with milestone status would require approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which has broad authority.
During a public hearing on the decision on Monday, officials from the Art Institute protested against the idea. Pam Rorke Levy, chairman of the board of the Institute of Art, said: “Landmarking the mural now that there is no imminent threat of it being sold without sufficient consideration of SFAI’s position would deprive SFAI of its primary and most valuable asset.”
The work from 1931, entitled “The production of a fresco showing the building of a city”, is a fresco within a fresco. The tableau depicts the creation of both a city and a mural – with architects, engineers, craftsmen, sculptors and painters working hard. Rivera herself is seen from behind with a palette and brush along with her assistants. It is one of three frescoes in San Francisco by the Mexican muralist that had a huge impact on other artists in the city.
Years of costly expansions and declining enrollment have put SFAI in a difficult financial situation exacerbated by the pandemic and a default on a loan. Last July, a private bank announced it would sell the school’s collateral – including its Chestnut Street campus, the Rivera painting and 18 other works of art – before the University of California Board of Regents stepped in to buy the debt in October. Through a new agreement, the department has six years to repurchase the property; if it does not, the University of California would take over the campus.
Faced with the threat of foreclosure, school administrators have been looking for a suitable buyer, although Mrs Levy has said the school’s first choice would be to equip the mural in place and attract patrons or a partner institution that would create a substantial fund that would put us able to preserve, protect and present the mural to the public. ”
Last month, Ms. Levy floated two options with board members and staff. One involved filmmaker George Lucas bought the mural for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. (The museum said it would not comment on speculation about acquisitions.) Another would have seen the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art take ownership of the mural, but leave it on campus as an annexed space.
But a spokeswoman for the museum said nothing came from early discussions. “We have no plans to acquire or equip the SFAI mural,” Jill Lynch, a communications officer at SFMOMA, told The New York Times.
The school’s Chestnut Street campus has been a designated landmark since 1977, but it was possible that as part of the interior, the mural could have been sold or removed.
In recent days, former students and faculty members have organized themselves to oppose any sale of the mural. They included the famous artist Catherine Opie, who published an open letter condemning the actions of the school board and announcing the withdrawal of a photograph she had planned to sell to a fundraiser for the institute.
“I can no longer be part of a legacy that will sell an essentially unique piece of history,” she wrote.
After hearing that the mural would probably gain status as a landmark, Mrs. Opie breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m excited and relieved,” she told The Times. “I’m tired of seeing art exploited as an asset in the institution’s first line of defense.”