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'Harebrained Scheme' Involving Diego Rivera Mural Goes Bust

San Francisco Art Institute wants to dump $50M piece to offset debt
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 13, 2021 11:24 AM CST

(Newser) – A 1931 mural created by Mexican painter Diego Rivera at the San Francisco Art Institute was supposed to be sold off to knock off much of the school's debt, a decision that outraged many in the local community. "The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City," described by the New York Times as a "fresco within a fresco," is one of a trio of Rivera's frescoes in San Francisco; it's widely considered a big part of the city's history. Now, however, the proposal to sell has hit a major roadblock: On Tuesday, the city's 11-person Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to start landmark-status proceedings on the fresco, which would protect it from a sale. Now, only the city's Historic Preservation Commission can give the OK to remove the art. "There's a lot of money in this town," says Aaron Peskin, a board member who's pushing to protect the mural. "There are better ways to get out of their mess than a harebrained scheme of selling." More on the unfolding controversy:

  • In the red: The Times notes that SFAI's debt issues, which amount to nearly $20 million, have come about due to a dip in enrollment and too many high-priced expansions. The University of California Board of Regents scooped up SFAI's debt in October, and if the institute can't buy its property back in six years' time, U of C gets to keep the property.

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  • Famous possible buyers: None other than Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas had been floated by Pam Rorke Levy, chair of the Art Institute's board, as someone interested in the mural for LA's Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, per the NYT. A second possibility: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which would reportedly leave the mural on campus as annexed space. However, an SFMOMA rep says that right now there are "no plans" for it to purchase or endow the piece.
  • Backlash: A "crime against art and the city's heritage" and "heresy" is how Peskin describes the proposal to Mission Local, while a local workers union asserts to Hyperallergic that the mural "is not a commodity," but "an artwork, given by a Mexican artist to a predominately white-serving school, that serves ... as a focal point for complex and ongoing negotiations between artists and art institutions around issues of race, class, access, and labor."
  • Pushback from the board: Shielding the mural via landmark status when it doesn't even seem to have an interested buyer "would deprive SFAI of its primary and most valuable asset," Levy argues. She notes that the school is hoping to keep the mural where it is, with contributed funds from a generous patron "that would enable us to preserve, protect, and present the mural to the public."
  • How would you even move a $50 million fresco? With much difficulty, an art conservator tells the Los Angeles Times. The process could take up to two years at an expense of between $1.5 million and $2 million. More here on how it could be done.
  • A closer look. Check out some of the mural's sections in this short video.
(Read more murals stories.)

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