San Francisco’s Top Art School Says Fate Hinges on a Diego Rivera Mural

The San Francisco Art Institute was close to losing its campus and art collection to a public sale last fall, when the University of California Board of Regents stepped in to buy its $19.7 million of debt from a private bank, in an attempt to save the 150-year-old institution from collapse.

The agreement provides a lifeline, but the fate of a beloved artwork — a mural worth $50 million by Diego Rivera that officials say could help balance the budget — is still up in the air, and faculty and former students are outraged.

The 1931 work, titled “Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” is a fresco within a fresco. The tableau portrays the creation of both a city and a mural — with architects, engineers, artisans, sculptors and painters hard at work. Rivera himself is seen from the back, holding a palette and brush, with his assistants. It is one of three frescoes in San Francisco by the Mexican muralist, who was an enormous influence on other artists in the city.

Years of costly expansions and declining enrollment at the institute have put it in peril, a situation that has worsened during the pandemic.

The school has stressed that no final decision has been made to sell the mural. But behind the scenes, administrators and the institute's leaders are strongly pushing to do so, as it would pay off debts and allow them to make ends meet for an annual operating budget that typically runs around $19 million.

In a Dec. 23 email obtained by The New York Times that was sent to staff members, Jennifer Rissler, the vice president and dean of academic affairs, acknowledged that a number of people had expressed concern over the possible sale of the mural. She added that “the board voted, as part of their fiduciary duty to explore all options to save S.F.A.I., to continue exploring pathways and offers for endowing or selling the mural.”

At a Dec. 17 board meeting, the S.F.A.I. chairwoman, Pam Rorke Levy, said that the filmmaker George Lucas was interested in buying the mural for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. Details of that discussion were provided by an attendee who asked for anonymity because the attendee was not authorized to discuss internal matters.

Speaking with faculty members on Dec. 17, Ms. Levy detailed another plan in which the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art would take ownership of the mural but leave it on campus as an annexed space, said Dewey Crumpler, an associate professor at the school.

A spokeswoman for the institute, Sara Fitzmaurice, the founder of the public-relations firm Fitz & Co., declined to discuss ongoing negotiations regarding the possible sale. “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,” she said in a statement.

In an interview last March, Ms. Levy said that she would be receptive to selling the painting. “When you have an asset that’s that valuable, there’s always a discussion,” she said. “As a small college in an expensive town, we are feeling the pain.”

Faculty and staff members have repeatedly raised objections. The latest rebuttal came in a Dec. 30 letter sent to the school community from a union representing its adjunct teachers, nearly 70 of whom were laid off during the pandemic but who previously made up the majority of the faculty.

“The Diego Rivera mural is not a commodity whose identity and worth resides exclusively in its market valuation,” reads the letter, saying that while its sale would resolve immediate financial shortfalls, “this would provide only a limited lifeline, and does not address patterns of misbehavior and mismanagement by S.F.A.I.’s board and executive officers.”

In a statement, the institute described the allegations of poor leadership as “a gross mischaracterization,” saying that nearly all of its board members joined the school after the debt was incurred.

The Rivera mural is intertwined with the legacy of S.F.A.I., which claims to be the oldest art school west of the Mississippi River and counts artists like Annie Leibovitz, Catherine Opie and Kehinde Wiley among its former students. Selling the mural after it has become such a significant part of the institute’s identity over the last 90 years risks alienating the students, alumni and faculty who appreciate it.

“It’s insulting and heartbreaking,” said Kate Laster, an institute alumna who produced student exhibitions in a gallery housing the mural before graduating in 2019. “Selling the mural is an impractical option when considering the school’s duty to protect its own historical legacy.”

Aaron Peskin, an elected official in the district where the institute resides, also opposes the sale. “The notion of anybody, much less the University of California, selling this off, is heresy,” he recently told the Mission Local news site, which first reported the deal with the regents on Dec. 30. “It would be a crime against art and the city’s heritage. Educational institutions should teach art, not sell it.”

Money woes for the institute originate from a 2016 loan that funded the construction of its new Fort Mason campus. Collateral for the loan included the school’s older campus on Chestnut Street and 19 artworks. Last year, the financial burden caused school leaders to consider permanently closing; it stayed open, in a limited capacity, after receiving $4 million in donations.

But it wasn’t enough. In July, Boston Private Bank & Trust Co. notified the institute that it had violated the loan’s terms of agreement by failing to pay off an annual $3 million line of credit needed to renew the loan. The bank issued a public notice of sale in October, listing the collateral, which includes the Rivera mural and frescoes including ones by Victor Arnautoff, whose paintings have been threatened with destruction elsewhere in San Francisco.

The Board of Regents prevented the sale by purchasing the institute’s debt that month. Through the new agreement, the public university system acquired the institute’s deed and became its landlord. Administrators at S.F.A.I. have six years to repurchase the property; if they don’t, the University of California would take possession of the campus.

And if the institute loses its home, school administrators would have more tough decisions to make about the mural’s fate. “If it does come to S.F.A.I. leaving the Chestnut Street Campus for good, we would need to potentially move the Diego Rivera mural,” Ms. Fitzmaurice said. “We have been informed that such a potential move could be a multiyear process and so we have begun to investigate what is possible if it comes to that.”

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