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.”
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.
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.”