Written by Christina Maxouris, CNN

Contributors Oscar Holland, CNNSarah Moon, CNN

Officials have moved to block the potential sale of a mural by Mexican painter Diego Rivera, after the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) indicated that selling the valuable artwork might help alleviate its financial worries.

The city’s Board of Supervisors this week voted unanimously in favor of giving the mural “landmark” status, meaning the art college would not be able to make it available to prospective buyers.

The mural, titled “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” was commissioned by SFAI’s then-president, and was completed by Rivera in May 1931. It has been in the institute ever since.

The SFAI had previously suggested that selling or endowing the artwork could not be ruled out as it sought to secure its financial future amid mounting debt. In a statement, the private college said it was considering a variety of “potential paths to financial stability,” before adding that “no determinations have been made regarding a possible endowment or sale of artworks, including the Rivera.”

The news sparked backlash within the school community and beyond. In an open letter to college trustees, photographer and SFAI alumni Catherine Opie said plans to sell the mural were “unacceptable.” She announced she was withdrawing her work from an upcoming college auction, saying that she could “no longer be a part of a legacy that will sell off an essential unique piece of history.”
The fresco shows both the building of a city and the making of a fresco.

The fresco shows both the building of a city and the making of a fresco. Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Art Institute

Funding issues

Described by the SFAI as a “fresco within the fresco,” the mural depicts both the creation of a fresco and the construction of the city, complete with engineers, sculptors, architects and other assistants. In the piece, Rivera is depicted with his back to the viewer holding a palette and paintbrush.

It’s one of three murals Rivera painted in San Francisco between 1930 and 1931.

During the board’s Tuesday meeting, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin said the piece is of “particular significance to the Latinx and the Chicanx communities,” later adding, “It is the responsibility of civic and academic institutions to include these communities in decisions pertaining to the mural.”

In a tweet following the vote, Peskin wrote: “Keeping the mural in place is not just the ‘first choice’ — it’s the only choice.”

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Prior to Tuesday’s vote, chair of SFAI’s board of trustees, Pam Rorke Levy, warned that giving landmark status to the college’s “only significant asset” would prevent it from securing a $7 million loan needed “to make it through the pandemic and rebuild our enrollment over the next two years.”

In a letter shared with CNN, she said the mural’s fate is “inextricably linked” to that of the institute, adding that debts of almost $20 million must be paid back within the next six years.

“If we cannot raise the funds and public support necessary to rebuild our programs, faculty, and enrollment post-pandemic, we cannot continue to safeguard the mural, as we have for the last 90 years,” the letter read.





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