January 8, 2021

San Francisco Art Institute Explores Controversial Sale of Diego Rivera Mural

Diego Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, 1931, at the San Francisco Art Institute. Photo: Jay Galvin/Flickr.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—The beleaguered San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) is contemplating the sale of its iconic 1931 Diego Rivera mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, in order to supplement its endowment, which was alleged to stand at just $10 million in June. Reported to have expressed interest in the $50 million mural is Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas, who is said to want the work for his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, currently under construction in Los Angeles.

SFAI, one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious art schools, has struggled to stay open since March, when, already faced with declining enrollment and millions of dollars in expansion-incurred debt, it was forced by the Covid-19 pandemic to send students home and lay off faculty and staff. The school in July reversed an announced decision to close, but must still find a way to pay off debt while coming up with roughly $19 million in operating costs.

The site-specific Rivera tableau, depicting workers atop a trompe l’oeil scaffolding creating a fresco showing a city being built, is just one of three in the city by the renowned Mexican muralist. The work occupies the school’s Chestnut Street campus, which was acquired by the University of California Board of Regents when it bought nearly $20 million of SFAI’s debt last fall in an effort to save the school from collapsing. Should SFAI be unable to pay off that debt by 2026, when its lease expires, the campus and the mural will become the property of the University of California.

The mural could be saved in situ through an endowment, which SFAI is said to be actively seeking, or via a plan that would see the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art purchasing the work and allowing it to remain on campus.

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