"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" by Diego Rivera adorns the Diego Rivera Gallery at San Francisco Art Institute's 800 Chestnut St. main campus

The beleaguered San Francisco Art Institute staved off foreclosure when the Regents of the University of California in October bought its $19.7 million debt from a private bank

The 149-year-old art school is still in dire financial straits, however. And, on Dec. 23, its dean of academic affairs wrote to staff and faculty that “all options to save SFAI” are on the table — and that includes “endowing or selling” the school’s 1931 Diego Rivera mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City.

The possibility of the mural — purportedly assessed at $50 million — being sold, removed from the walls of the school’s main campus at 800 Chestnut St., and carted off to parts unknown elicited a sharp response from, staff, alumni and, perhaps most notably, city lawmakers. 

Supervisor Aaron Peskin told Mission Local that if it is deemed that the city’s 1977 historic preservation ordinance does not pertain to the interiors of the landmarked 1926 structure, he plans to introduce legislation “to initiate landmark designation of the murals themselves” — perhaps as soon as Tuesday. 

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

The professors’ letter states that a private buyer had been “lined up” who “needed” the mural for “his museum” in Los Angeles.

The professors’ letter states that a private buyer had been “lined up” who “needed” the mural for “his museum” in Los Angeles.

In an open letter pondering “the future of the Diego Rivera mural at SFAI,” the institute’s unionized adjunct professors last week stated that “any sale of the mural resulting in its removal from the Chestnut campus is unconscionable, and we ask for your ideas and resources as we map out ways to prevent it.”  

The adjunct faculty also bemoaned the symbolic impact of the work of a Mexican communist being sold to ameliorate the debts of a “predominantly white-serving school. … The collective fortunes of the board’s members could easily make the school whole.” 

The professors’ letter goes on to state that a private buyer had been “lined up” who “needed” the mural for “his museum” in Los Angeles.

The letter attributes these statements to SFAI board chair Pam Rorke Levy. Through a spokesperson, she denies making any such statement.

Doug Hall, a professor emeritus at the school and a member of its board, wrote to the adjunct professors that there is no imminent move to sell the mural. 

“I understand that, regardless of what I or anyone else might say, many of you will claim this is just more bullshit from the Board,” wrote Hall. “As for me, all I can do is tell you the honest truth, which I have tried to express as vehemently and clearly as I can. I repeat: THERE IS NO IMMEDIATE PLAN BY THE BOARD TO SELL THE DIEGO RIVERA MURAL AND IF SUCH A PLAN WERE TO EMERGE IT WOULD BE VETTED BY ALL INTERESTED PARTIES BEFORE ANY DECISION WAS MADE ONE WAY OR THE OTHER.” 

A spokesperson for the San Francisco Art Institute declined to reveal the assessed value of the mural — but multiple sources quoted the $50 million figure to Mission Local, and this figure was cited last year in the New York Times.

THERE IS NO IMMEDIATE PLAN BY THE BOARD TO SELL THE DIEGO RIVERA MURAL AND IF SUCH A PLAN WERE TO EMERGE IT WOULD BE VETTED BY ALL INTERESTED PARTIES BEFORE ANY DECISION WAS MADE ONE WAY OR THE OTHER.” 

SF Art Institute Boardmember and professor emeritus Doug Hall

San Francisco Art Institute, like so many colleges and universities, is reeling from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But many of SFAI’s fiscal woes predate covid, and were self-induced

The school’s crushing debt stems from a $16 million loan it secured in 2016 to finance an ambitious and ultimately ill-conceived expansion into Fort Mason — and an $18 million 2017 refinancing. 

On July 1, 2016, the school put up as collateral its “real property” — namely the 800 Chestnut St. site — to obtain a loan from Shanghai Commercial Bank. 

Board of Trustees president Pam Rorke Levy last year told freelance journalist Sam Lefebvre that Boston Private Bank, which previously held the school’s debt, was “talking to folks about selling our assets.” 

She said that during calls to Latin American collectors in hopes of endowing the Rivera mural, “we found out someone from the bank was calling them. Well, it’s not theirs to sell.”

And yet the Rivera, along with 18 other murals and frescoes, was in fact listed among the “description of collateral” on San Francisco Art Institute’s 2017 Deed of Trust.

In its October 2020 buyout of that deed, however, the UC Regents apparently released all collateral, with the exception of the 800 Chestnut St. campus itself — meaning the mural and other works of art on-site would figure to now be the property of the San Francisco Art Institute.

How this nuance would affect Peskin’s potential legislation is not yet clear.

Regarding the mural’s future, the school spokesperson stated that “the 13 members of the Board of Trustees of SFAI have a fiduciary responsibility to SFAI to review all possible scenarios and analyze all assets in order to secure the school’s future. … No determinations have been made regarding the possible endowment or sale of artworks, including the Rivera, or other assets.”

Peskin, however, vowed he would do “anything within the law to make sure the mural stays in the institute” — and open to the public. 

“I have been in there 50, if not 100 times, and it is an extraordinary thing to behold.”  

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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11 Comments

  1. Hi Joe, I appreciate learning about the SF Art Institute’s struggle to survive and keep the Diego Rivera murals here in the City. Do you know that the historic CLIFF HOUSE has closed down as of December 31st? A workable lease could not be agreed upon.
    Maybe MISSION LOCAL could educate San Franciscans about this sad state of affairs.
    180 people lost their jobs. The GGNRA is talking about making this landmark a federal office building! So sad.

  2. Since the Board of Supervisors operates for the City AND COUNTY of San Francisco, why doesn’t that give the Board the standing as a State body? Am I naive to think that?

  3. How can anyone who PUT THE RIVERA MURAL IN HOCK be allowed to continue to serve in the leadership of the SFAI?

    1. Marcos,

      It’s called ‘high finance’ and we had two of the biggest here in SF.

      Warren Hellman of Wells Fargo fame.

      And, Dick Blum of Dianne Feistein lore.

      Their basic business model is to put their lackies on the various shell entities controlling the agencies then freeze out the little guy and revert control back to the few ‘Trustees’ who target the place from the outset.

      Feinstein gave Blum control of ‘Smart Cart’ at 5,000 airports thisaway.

      Along with Pelosi she handed Blum 6 billion in USPS property for sale at a guaranteed 6%. That’s 360 smackeroos right there.

      Same with Haight Street Clinic which they usurped cause Hellman’s daughter wanted to get into that business.

      Warren ripped off the SFAI model, took it statewide while also gobbling up the Culinary Institure.

      Entire SFAI philosophy went from ‘Pro Palestinian’ to ‘Pro Zionist’.

      Always it’s the same people playing the same game.

      It’s like letting a bunch of toddlers play with your Faberge’ egg collection.

      None of these people would have allowe Diego Rivera into their living rooms.

      Did you know that he painted that mural with a gun in his pocket cause he was there when Stalin’s assassin struck down Trotsky?

      Curry had the game of his life (thus far) at 63 points!

      h.

  4. Why not sell for $50 million and just replicate the exact same painting in it’s place?

    This would be art saving art and the artwork would then be in two places allowing more people to be impacted by the piece.

    Does the painting have less of an impact if it’s old vs. new paint?

    And to reply to H. Brown, I think the Pope would sell “the Last Supper” if it meant keeping the Catholic church alive.

  5. Ask Apple to permanently endow the SFAI. JEEZ! PR galore. It’s less than a pittance to a company with untold billions in excess cash.
    From a stock holder.

  6. One question to ask is WHY DOES SFAI SUCK so much? Where is the art and the artists that the School is meant to produce? Its model should sustain it through bad times. Sounds like a failure of leadership on many levels. The fact this article exists is sad. Maybe should make SFAI into an art museum, and then figure out a new model to support art students that doesn’t include selling a Diego Rivera mural. Sheesh.

  7. ok but would it be a crime against the law? because that’s what crime is. are supervisors going to do anything to prevent this or just make comforting word sounds from their mouth holes while they wring their hands helplessly?

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