San Francisco’s Best Art School Says Future Hinges on Diego Rivera Mural

The San Francisco Art Institute was on the verge of losing its campus and art collection in a public sale last fall, when the University of California board of trustees stepped in to purchase its 19.7 million dollars in debt to a private bank, in an effort to save the 150 year old institution from collapse.

The deal provides a lifeline, but the future of a beloved work of art – a $ 50 million mural by Diego Rivera that officials say could help balance the budget – is still pending, and professors and alumni are outraged.

The 1931 work, entitled “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Construction of a City”, is a fresco within a fresco. The painting depicts the creation of both a city and a mural – with architects, engineers, artisans, sculptors and painters at work. Rivera himself is seen from behind, holding a palette and brush, with his assistants. It is one of three frescoes made in San Francisco by the Mexican muralist, who had a huge influence on other artists in the city.

Years of costly expansions and declining enrollment at the institute put it in jeopardy, a situation that worsened during the pandemic.

The school said no final decision has been made to sell the mural. But behind the scenes, the directors and officers of the institute are pushing to do so, as it would pay off debts and allow them to make ends meet for an annual operating budget that typically hovers around $ 19 million. (Board chair Pam Rorke Levy disputed this, saying: “Our first choice would be to endow the mural in place, to attract patrons or a partner institution that would create a substantial fund that would allow us to preserve , protect and present the mural to the public. ”)

In a December 23 email obtained by The New York Times and sent to staff members, Jennifer Rissler, vice president and dean of academic affairs, acknowledged that a number of people had expressed concern over the sale. possible wall painting. She added that “the board has voted, as part of its fiduciary duty to explore all options to save SFAI, to continue to explore avenues and offers to endow or sell the mural.”

At a board meeting on December 17, Ms. Levy said filmmaker George Lucas was interested in purchasing the mural for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. Details of this discussion were provided by a participant who requested anonymity because the participant was not authorized to discuss internal matters.

Speaking to faculty members on Dec. 17, Ms. Levy detailed another plan in which the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art would take possession of the mural but leave it on campus as an ancillary space, said Dewey Crumpler, associate professor at the school. .

A spokesperson for the institute, Sara Fitzmaurice, founder of public relations firm Fitz & Co., declined to discuss ongoing negotiations over the possible sale. “A number of conversations have taken place with several institutions on the possibility of endowing or acquiring the mural to secure the future of the school,” she said in a statement.

In an interview last March, Ms. Levy said she would be receptive to selling the painting. “When you have such a valuable asset, there is always a discussion,” she said. “As a small college in an expensive city, we feel the pain.”

Professors and staff raised objections on several occasions. The latest rebuttal came in a December 30 letter sent to the school community by a union representing its auxiliary teachers, nearly 70 of whom were made redundant during the pandemic but who previously made up the majority of the faculty.

“Diego Rivera’s mural is not a commodity whose identity and value lie exclusively in its market valuation,” the letter read, asserting that even if its sale would solve the immediate financial deficits, “it does would provide only a limited lifeline and would not solve the patterns. ” misconduct and mismanagement by the board of directors and officers of SFAI.

In a statement, the institute described the allegations of bad leadership as “a gross mischaracterization,” saying nearly all of its board members joined the school after the debt was incurred.

The Rivera mural is closely linked to the legacy of SFAI, which claims to be the oldest art school west of the Mississippi River and has artists like Annie Leibovitz, Catherine Opie, and Kehinde Wiley among its former students. Selling the mural after it has become such an important part of the institute’s identity over the past 90 years risks alienating students, alumni and faculty who appreciate it.

“It’s insulting and heartbreaking,” said Kate Laster, an institute alumnus who produced student exhibits at a gallery housing the mural before graduating in 2019. “Selling the mural. is an impractical option when considering the school’s duty to protect its own historical heritage. “

Aaron Peskin, an elected official from the district where the institute resides, is also opposed to the sale. Selling the mural “is heresy,” he recently told the Mission Local news site, which first reported the deal with the regents on December 30. “It would be a crime against the art and heritage of the city. Educational institutions should teach art, not sell it.

The money problems for the institute stem from a 2016 loan that funded the construction of its new Fort Mason campus. The loan guarantee included the school’s old campus on Chestnut Street and 19 works of art. Last year, the financial burden prompted principals to consider a permanent closure; it remained open, in a limited capacity, after receiving $ 4 million in donations.

But it was not enough. In July, the Boston Private Bank & Trust Co. informed the institute that it had violated the terms of the loan agreement by failing to repay a $ 3 million annual line of credit needed to renew the loan. The bank issued a public notice of sale in October, listing collateral, which includes Rivera’s mural and frescoes, including those by Victor Arnautoff, whose paintings have been threatened with destruction elsewhere in San Francisco.

The Board of Regents prevented the sale by buying the institute’s debt that month. Thanks to the new agreement, the public university system acquired the institute deed and became its owner. The directors of SFAI have six years to buy back the property; if they don’t, the University of California would take possession of the campus.

And if the institute loses its home, school administrators would have more difficult decisions to make regarding the mural’s future. “If SFAI were to leave the Chestnut Street campus for good, we would potentially need to move the Diego Rivera mural,” said Ms. Fitzmaurice. “We have been informed that such a potential move could be a multi-year process and therefore we have started to investigate what is possible if this is so.”


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Kayleen C. Rice

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