Diego Rivera Mural to Get Landmark Standing, Blocking Potential Sale

On Tuesday, city officials unanimously voted to initiate the process of designating a popular Diego Rivera mural as a landmark after the San Francisco Art Institute, which owns the $ 50 million painting, said the sale would help Pay off debts of $ 19.7 million.

Designating the mural as a landmark would severely limit the leverage of the 150-year-old institution, and officials behind the measure say the sale will likely be off the table for now. Removing the landmark mural would require approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which has extensive powers.

“There’s a lot of money in this town,” said Andrew Peskin, an elected official from the district where the institute is located and a sponsor of the proposal. “There are better ways to get out of your mess than a mind-bending scheme to sell the mural.”

The 1931 work entitled “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” is a fresco within a fresco. The tableau shows the creation of a city and a mural – with architects, engineers, craftsmen, sculptors and painters who work hard. Rivera himself can be seen from behind, holding a palette and a paintbrush with his assistants. It is one of three frescoes by the Mexican muralist in San Francisco that had a tremendous impact on other artists in the city.

Years of costly expansions and declining enrollments have placed the SFAI in a difficult financial position made worse by the pandemic and loan default. In July last year, 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 bought the debt in October. A new agreement gives the institute six years to buy back the property. Otherwise, the University of California would take possession of the campus.

Faced with the threat of foreclosure, school administrators have been looking for a suitable buyer, although Pam Rorke Levy, chairwoman of the board, said the school’s “first choice is to rent the mural on the spot and attract patrons or a partner institution, who do this would create a substantial fund that enables us to preserve, protect, and present the mural to the public. “

Last month, Ms. Levy discussed two options with board members and employees. For one, filmmaker George Lucas bought the mural for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. (The museum said it wouldn’t comment on speculation about acquisitions.) Another would have seen the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art take possession of the mural but leave it as an adjoining room on campus.

However, a museum spokeswoman said nothing came from early discussions. “We have no plans to acquire or rent the SFAI mural,” said Jill Lynch, communications officer for SFMOMA, to the New York Times.

The school’s Chestnut Street campus has been a landmark since 1977, but it was possible that the mural could be sold as part of the interior or removed.

In recent days, former students and faculty members have organized to oppose a sale of the mural. This included the famous artist Catherine Opie, who published an open letter condemning the actions of the school board and announcing the withdrawal of a photo she was planning to sell in a fundraiser for the institute.

“I can no longer be part of a legacy that sells an essential unique piece of history,” she wrote.

After hearing that the mural would likely receive landmark status, Ms. Opie breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m thrilled and relieved,” she told the Times. “I’m tired of seeing art being used as a first line of defense asset for institutions.”

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