Story at a glance

  • Diego Rivera's mural, "The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City," is located on the San Francisco Art Institute’s Chestnut Street Campus.
  • The school's board of trustees had considered removing and selling the mural to cover their debt, prompting backlash from the community.
  • Now, the city is officially designating the mural as a historic landmark, preventing its sale.

Just 41 students enrolled at San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) this fall, sending an institution that lists Kehinde Wiley and Annie Leibovitz among its alumni into a "downward spiral." 

Already $19 million in debt, the school lost more than $4 million in tuition revenue due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to a fundraising plea. The school had put up its Chestnut Street campus, including the art, as collateral for its debt before the pandemic, but it failed to raise funds to cover costs associated with the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. When the bank came to collect last spring, SFAI defaulted on its debt, putting the future of the campus at jeopardy — including one particularly valuable work.


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Diego Rivera's mural, "The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City," was commissioned by SFAI in 1931 and today sits in the college's Diego Rivera Gallery on Chesnut Street, valued at $50 million. So when the Regents of the University of California bought the school's debt, the mural passed into their hands. The school's $19.7 million debt is due to the University of California in six years, prompting board members to consider an endowment or even a sale of the work.

Reports of  “Star Wars” director George Lucas as a potential buyer fanned the flames of outrage among the community. In an open letter from the SFAI Adjunct Union, faculty voiced their opposition to the sale, noting that it was "given by a Mexican artist to a predominately white-serving school" and serves as a reminder of issues of race, class, access and labor.



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“As a non-collecting institution … several potential paths to financial stability could include endowing the mural in place … or major donor/s joining current contributors to create a well-funded endowment,” Pam Rorke Levy, chair of SFAI's board of trustees, told The Guardian by email. “Regarding the Rivera, our first choice would be to endow the mural in place, attracting patrons or a partner organization who would create a substantial fund that would enable us to preserve, protect and present the mural to the public.” 

But in a last ditch effort to save the mural, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution initiating the process of designating the work a landmark, due to its “historical, architectural, and aesthetic interest." 

“The notion of anybody … selling this off is heresy,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin told a local news outlet. “It would be a crime against art and the city’s heritage. Educational institutions should teach art, not sell it.”   

In a letter to the city's board, Levy said the designation would prevent SFAI from using it to secure a $7 million loan to "make it through the pandemic and rebuild."

"The mural's fate is inextricably linked to the fate of the San Francisco Art Institute," she wrote. "If we cannot raise the funds and public support necessary to rebuild our programs, faculty and enrollment post-pandemic, we cannot continue to safeguard the mural, as we have for the last 90 years.”


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Published on Jan 15, 2021