The San Francisco Art Institute was on the verge of losing its campus and art collection to a public sale last fall, when the University of California’s Board of Regents stepped in to buy its 19 debt. , $ 7 million to a private bank, in an effort to save the 150-year-old institution from collapse.
The deal provides a lifeline, but the fate of a beloved piece of art – a $ 50 million mural by Diego Rivera that officials say could help balance the budget – is still pending, and professors and former students are outraged.
The 1931 work, entitled “Creation 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 San Francisco frescoes by the Mexican muralist, which had a huge influence on other artists in the city.
Years of costly expansion and declining enrollments at the institute put it at risk, a situation that worsened during the pandemic.
The school stressed that no final decision has been made to sell the mural. But behind the scenes, the institute’s administrators and executives are pushing hard for it, as it would pay off debts and allow them to make ends meet for an annual operating budget that typically hovers around $ 19 million. dollars.
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 possible sale of 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 December 17 board meeting, SFAI President Pam Rorke 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 appropriate the mural but leave it on campus as an annex space, said said Dewey Crumpler, associate professor at the school. .
A spokesperson for the institute, Sara Fitzmaurice, the 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 willing to sell the painting. “When you have such a valuable asset, there is always a discussion,” she says. “As a small college in an expensive city, we feel the pain.”
Faculty and staff members have repeatedly raised objections. 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 laid off during the pandemic, but who previously made up the majority of the faculty.
“Diego Rivera’s fresco is not a commodity whose identity and value lie exclusively in its stock market valuation,” the letter read, asserting that if its sale would solve the immediate financial deficits, “it would only provide ‘a limited lifeline and would not respond to trends in misconduct and mismanagement on the part of the SFAI Board of Directors and officers. “
In a statement, the institute described the allegations of poor leadership as “a serious mistake,” saying almost all of its board members joined the school after the debt was incurred.
The Rivera mural is closely linked to the legacy of the SFAI, which claims to be the oldest art school west of Mississippi and has alumni such as Annie Leibovitz, Catherine Opie, and Kehinde Wiley. 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 painting mural is an impractical option 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. “The notion of anyone, let alone the University of California, selling this 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 closing permanently; it has remained open, in a limited capacity, after receiving $ 4 million in donations.
But it was not enough. In July, Boston Private Bank & Trust Co. informed the institute that it had violated the terms of the loan agreement by failing to pay off an annual $ 3 million line of credit needed to renew the loan. The bank issued a public notice of sale in October, listing guarantees, which include the Rivera 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 redeem the property; if they don’t, the University of California would take possession of the campus.
And if the institute lost its home, school administrators would have more difficult decisions to make about the fate of the mural. “If SFAI permanently leaves the Chestnut Street campus, we would potentially need to move the Diego Rivera mural,” Ms. Fitzmaurice said. “We have been informed that such a potential decision could be a multi-year process and therefore we have started to investigate what is possible if this happens.”