Outrage sparked by potential sale of Diego Rivera mural at San Francisco Art Institute

San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) is facing criticism after announcing the possible sale of a landmark mural on its grounds. Painted by the legendary artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957), the site-specific mural could be worth up to US$50 million (£36.8 million).  

In recent years the 150-year-old institute has experienced financial hardship, having nearly lost its campus and art collection to a public sale last autumn. SFAI’s US$19.7 million (£14.5 million) of debt was bought by the University of California Board of Regents from a private bank in an attempt to save them from foreclosure. But SFAI’s problems were exacerbated further by the spread of coronavirus, prompting them to consider this controversial sale.   

Vice president of SFAI Jennifer Rissler emailed staff and faculty in December 2020 to explain that they were exploring “all options to save SFAI”, which included “pathways and offers for endowing or selling the mural”.

Painted in 1931, ‘The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City’ is a provocative expression of Rivera’s communist politics. It depicts the artist and his assistants painting the mural itself on trompe-l’oeil scaffolding. Rivera established the mural movement in Mexico and famously had a volatile relationship with Frida Kahlo.

The Art Institute mural is about the city and its exciting growth,” explained James Oles, a Senior Lecturer in Art at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. “Around the artist and his assistants are engineers and architects who represent the power of San Francisco to build, even during the Depression.”  

Reports suggest the filmmaker George Lucas might be interested in purchasing the enormous mural for his currently under construction museum in Los Angeles. A representative for the museum announced that “we do not comment on speculation about acquisitions.” 

But school staff and alumni have raised concerns about the potential sale. “It’s insulting and heart-breaking,” remarked institute alumna Kate Laster. “Selling the mural is an impractical option when considering the school’s duty to protect its own historical legacy.” 

Local Official Aaron Peskin added “it would be a crime against art and the city’s heritage. Educational institutions should teach art, not sell it.” 

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