The University of California is aiding the San Francisco Art Institute, but S.F.A.I. officials say selling a $50 million Rivera could save the school. Former students are outraged.

Many faculty members and former students object to the possible sale of “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” by Diego Rivera.
Many faculty members and former students object to the possible sale of “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” by Diego Rivera.Credit…Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via San Francisco Art Institute

By Zachary Small

  • Published Jan. 5, 2021

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 future 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 “The 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. (The board chairwoman, Pam Rorke Levy, disputed that, saying, “Our first choice would be to endow the mural in place, attracting patrons or a partner institution that would create a substantial fund that would enable us to preserve, protect and present the mural to the public.”)

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, Ms. 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.

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