The San Francisco Arts Institute is closed. What’s Happening to His $50 Million Diego Rivera Mural? – Chronicle of San Francisco | Candle Made Easy

The recent closure of the San Francisco Art Institute should close the 151-year-old school’s Diego Rivera fresco to the public for the foreseeable future, just as it was set to host a major reintroduction of the famous piece after a $200,000 restoration.

The fresco, once valued at $50 million, was locked away this week after the historic Chestnut Street campus was closed indefinitely following a failed University of San Francisco bailout. Although the fresco is on a movable frame, its status as a city landmark means that it cannot legally be moved.

“It’s a huge loss to San Francisco, the Bay Area and the world,” said restoration project manager Zoya Kocur, who was the only person on campus as of Monday, barring a security detail. Kocur was hired in March to oversee the fresco’s restoration inch by inch with a team of four using tiny tools smaller than toothbrushes.

The job was completed last month and Kocur organized a year of academic and public events to coincide with the opening of a Diego Rivera exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

‘The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City’ painted by Diego Rivera in 1931 is located at a private gallery of the San Francisco Art Institute in San Francisco, Calif. Wednesday, July 20, 2022. The mural was recently restored, but the gallery is closed indefinitely, as is the school, which recently announced its permanent closure.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The educational portion of the plan, which was funded along with conservation work by a grant from the Mellon Foundation in Pittsburgh, was mooted when the USF announced Friday it had pulled out of the merger deal. All faculty and staff who had shrunk to fewer than 50 were fired. Another 50 or so students in both graduate and undergraduate courses were held in limbo, leaving two lonely turtles swimming in the central fountain.

The fresco, Rivera’s first commission in San Francisco, looked as bright as the day the celebrated Mexican artist completed it one recent afternoon, and Kocur may be the last to see it.

“It’s unfortunate because the SFMOMA show is on and we were looking forward to a lot of cross-pollination,” said Kocur, who was also fired due to the school’s closure.

“I came here to do this project and was able to accomplish the most important piece, which is preserving the fresco so that it can stand for eternity,” she said.

The fresco entitled “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” was painted in one month, May 1-31, 1931, by order of then SFAI President William Gerstle.

“The work powerfully merges art and labor – the pure ‘work’ of creative practice with the people who surround, support and fund an artwork,” reads the description on the SFAI website. “The mural is considered a provocative expression of Rivera’s politics and an example of the artist’s high regard for the industrial worker.”

Rivera himself can be seen in the mural, with his back to the viewer, brush in hand, clear jars with his mixed pigment beneath him. The fresco was painted on plaster in a frame bolted to the concrete wall behind, with a space between the plaster and the concrete. The decision suggests it was built detachable, and that’s been the speculation since the Art Institute announced two years ago that it was in grave financial jeopardy.

In late 2020, it was revealed that the Art Institute owed $19.7 million to the Regents of the University of California, who saved it from default in a complicated lease agreement. There was speculation that one way to pay off this would be to sell the Rivera fresco. Speculation was reinforced by published reports at the time that George Lucas was interested in acquiring it for his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.

Fine brushstrokes form 'The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City' painted by Diego Rivera in 1931 at a private gallery of the San Francisco Art Institute in San Francisco, California on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. The restoration, however the gallery is closed indefinitely, along with the school, which recently announced its permanent closure.

Fine brushstrokes form ‘The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City’ painted by Diego Rivera in 1931 at a private gallery of the San Francisco Art Institute in San Francisco, California on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. The restoration, however the gallery is closed indefinitely, along with the school, which recently announced its permanent closure.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The advertised price at the time was $50 million. Pam Rorke Levy, then President of the SFAI Board of Trustees, stressed that the fresco was not for sale and never was.

“It might be our most valuable asset,” she told The Chronicle last year. “But if we can’t repay this debt in six years, we have to vacate the building and take the mural with us.”

This forced Superintendent Aaron Peskin, who represents the Russian Hill neighborhood where the Art Institute is located, to introduce legislation to make the mural a city landmark, separate from the already listed Art Institute building. The law was passed last October, making the mural permanent.

“It cannot be postponed,” Peskin said in an email.

SFMOMA’s Rivera retrospective opened Friday, the day USF exited the Art Institute’s acquisition deal, and runs through the end of the year.

When asked when and how the restored Rivera mural might be on view, Kocur said, “I’m no longer an employee, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Nobody else either. The Board of Trustees is trying to find out how the 151-year-old school will continue. A foundation was established to protect the institution’s name, heritage and archives. It is unknown if this will include the mural.

“The Diego Rivera mural is a work of art of great significance and historical value to the SFAI community and the public, particularly the Latinx community,” said John Marx, vice chairman of the school board. “It is one of SFAI’s greatest treasures, a masterpiece of 20th-century art that we have preserved for 90 years.”

The Art Institute owns the mural, but the Regents of UC now own the building and the land beneath it. If the Art Institute defaults on its lease, it could also lose the mural, its most valuable asset.

“Tragic,” was the one-word summary of the situation that Peskin offered.

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