Diego Rivera Mural at SFAI to Receive Landmark Designation, Preventing Possible Sale

A detail of the Diego Rivera mural 'The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,' painted in 1931 at SFAI's Chestnut Street campus. (Courtesy SFAI)

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to initiate landmark designation for the 1931 Diego Rivera mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City located inside the San Francisco Art Institute’s Chestnut Street campus.

Sponsored by District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the resolution addressed recent concern that the SFAI board of trustees was considering removing and selling the mural, appraised at $50 million, to cover the institution’s looming $19.7 million debt. That debt is to be repaid to the University of California within six years. Recent coverage by the New York Times identified the potential buyer as George Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.

While the SFAI board of trustees has emphasized its “desire to keep the mural where Rivera originally painted it,” as board chair Pam Rorke Levy wrote in a Jan. 11 letter to the supervisors, they opposed today’s initiation of landmark designation.

Instead, Levy asked that the supervisors to delay their decision “for at least a month,” explaining 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.”

Article 10 of the San Francisco Planning Code outlines the purposes of landmark designation “to promote the health, safety and general welfare of the public,” by protecting sites “that are reminders of past eras, events and persons important in local, state or national history.”

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The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City is one of just three Rivera murals in San Francisco, and it depicts, along with the artist’s broad backside, anonymous steel riveters, industrial laborers, then-SFAI president William Gerstle and Coit Tower architect Arthur Brown, Jr.

As for how long it might take to achieve landmark designation for the Rivera mural, Peskin says, “The normal answer is it takes 60–120 days depending on how fast things happen. But in this particular case it doesn’t really matter.” That’s because he believes the mural is already protected by a previous landmark designation for SFAI’s entire Chestnut Street campus. (That proposal was approved in 1977 by then-Supervisor Diane Feinstein and signed into effect by Mayor George Moscone.)

In the paperwork attached to that approval, the final case report makes significant mention of the Rivera mural, including a detail about the artist asking for more square footage of wall space, but not a higher commission.

SFAI's Chestnut Street campus was given city landmark designation in 1977. (Courtesy of SFAI)

Even if the 1977 designation doesn’t fully protect the mural in situ, Peskin thinks The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City is worthy of individual recognition. In a Monday night meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Committee that advanced today’s resolution to the full Board of Supervisors, he called SFAI board efforts to delay the designation “heresy.”

There is near-unilateral support for today’s resolution within the SFAI community and the art community at large. The Committee to Re-Imagine SFAI (made up of alumni, staff, faculty and community members), which has been working for six months to chart a financially sustainable future for the art school, wrote a letter to the board of trustees in mid-December, stating that the sale of the mural “will cause irreparable harm to the ethical, moral, cultural, social, political, civic, domestic, and international standing of our institution.”

The school’s adjunct faculty (most of them not currently teaching after SFAI initiated layoffs at the end of the spring 2020 semester) called the potential sale “desperate” in an email sent to the community on Dec. 30. “In reducing the value of such an artwork to pure commodity, the board undermines its school’s own pedagogy,” the email continued, citing the glaring optics of a predominantly white-led institution selling off a work by an artist of color to stay afloat.

And on Jan. 7, Los Angeles artist and SFAI alum Catherine Opie wrote an open letter to the SFAI board, announcing she would withdraw her photograph from an upcoming auction to benefit SFAI. “I can no longer be a part of a legacy that will sell off an essential unique piece of history,” she wrote.

In Levy’s Jan. 11 letter to the Board of Supervisors, she proposed the city work with SFAI to help the school “secure a loan or a loan guarantee or an outright grant from the city in the amount of $7 million ... Longer term, we would like to explore with you a transaction in which the city could help us pay off our debt to UC and in exchange, receive a financial interest in the mural.”

Peskin says the city and county of San Francisco understand the importance of SFAI as a 150-year-old institution, and that he wants the school to survive and someday thrive. But, he emphasizes, “The city of San Francisco has its own problems during COVID and we are not the Art Institute’s bank.”

In the next chapter in this ever-unfolding saga, the Committee to Re-Imagine SFAI is scheduled to make its final report to the community in a virtual town hall 4–6pm on Thursday, Jan. 14.

This story has been updated to accurately reflect that Diego Rivera asked for a larger wall for his fresco at SFAI, but not more money as originally stated.