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San Francisco’s best art school says fate depends on Diego Rivera mural

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.”

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How can we serve you? For chain restaurants, it depends on the location

The managers of Brazilian grill chain Fogo de Chão thought they had seen the worst.

Earlier this year, as seemingly every hour brought news of another city or state that was suddenly shutting down due to the pandemic, executives switched from email to the WhatsApp messaging system to communicate in real time with the general managers of their 43 scattered American restaurants. around the country.

“The first time we heard a state issue a stay at home order, we thought, ‘What does that mean? What are they talking about? Said Barry McGowan, Managing Director of Fogo de Chão. “Then it was like dominoes falling. Boom. Boom. Boom.”

Communication with suppliers was uncertain. Trucks full of food arrived at restaurants that had been closed.

The restaurant chain created a take out menu in just three days. He contacted the landlords to negotiate breaks on his leases. And since the order to stay closed was lifted, he spent around $ 1 million renting tents and other equipment to set up outdoor dining at several of his restaurants where indoor dining. were still limited.

For a while it worked. Diners flocked to the restaurants and spent lavishly. Before the pandemic, Fogo de Chão sold around 500 top-quality steaks, like Wagyu and Tomahawk rib eye, per week. This climbed to 1,300 per week in July.

But with the upsurge in cases of the virus across the country, new restrictions have been placed on indoor and outdoor dining, although they are far from uniform (no dining inside and out). Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, curfew inside New Jersey and Massachusetts, no dining restaurant at all in much of California). For large restaurant chains like Fogo de Chão, the constantly evolving patchwork of rules poses a particular logistical challenge: How do you offer a company-wide approach when different locations manage their own specific regulations?

“What you have is a huge deviation from the norm in how a chain operates restaurants in different states, which then takes a whole bunch of processes and management to make sure you you comply with the regulations, ”said Sean Ryan, a partner at Kearney, a consulting firm. “It’s expensive and takes time.”

Restaurants should work with local health departments who give specific advice on what to do to prevent the spread of the virus. Some require tents or outdoor dining structures that have no more than two walls to provide adequate ventilation. Others want all three sides of the tents to remain open.

And just as they did at the start of the pandemic, restaurants are adapting quickly again, moving deliveries of food, alcohol, linens and other goods from temporarily closed places to those that do. remain open. Some do the same with the staff.

“Restaurant owners are in a state of desperation,” said Phil Kafarakis, industry analyst and former director of innovation for the National Restaurant Association. “People are in total panic right now and are starting to take drastic measures to continue to survive.”

The restaurant industry has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic this year. According to some estimates, almost 110,000 restaurants closed permanently and 2.1 million employees remained unemployed in October. Several large, upscale, casual dining chains like Chuck E. Cheese, California Pizza Kitchen, and some Il Mulino restaurants have gone bankrupt.

The new restrictions come at a difficult time, as the holiday season is typically the busiest time in the industry.

Maggiano’s Little Italy chain, which operates more than 50 restaurants in the United States, is said to be typically packed with corporate and family celebrations this time of year.

But due to various dining restrictions, 2020 would be different, Wall Street analysts warned in September, executives at Brinker International, which owns Maggiano’s and Chili’s Grill and Bar. “We currently anticipate that we won’t see the same similar environment play out,” said Joe Taylor, Brinker’s chief financial officer. This week, Brinker withdrew its forecast for the quarter as several of its sites were once again closed.

Yet, in many ways, the big restaurant chains are better positioned for the new restrictions than they were in the spring.

“There were so many unknown variables in the spring,” said RJ Hottovy, analyst at consulting firm Aaron Allen & Associates. “This time, the restaurateurs had put in place a specific game plan.”

Left with empty dining rooms, casual, upscale restaurant chains quickly took hold to either reinforce themselves or offer take-out options the first time around. They’ve started curbside pickup and signed up with food delivery partners like DoorDash and Grubhub. Some states have relaxed alcohol laws, allowing chains to offer take-out alcoholic beverages. And when restaurants were allowed to serve dinners again, with restrictions, many tents rented out or opened patios to create outdoor seating.

But chains have seen patchy performance among their restaurants.

By the end of the summer, Olive Garden restaurants were averaging $ 70,000 in sales per week. But sales at the chain’s superstar restaurant in Times Square in New York City, which only offered take-out during the summer, fell to $ 17,500 per week, from around $ 288,000 per week, executives at Darden Restaurants, said. which owns Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille, told Wall Street analysts in September.

Darden’s stock, along with that of many catering companies, has rebounded this fall and winter, in part thanks to the success many have had in offering take-out or alfresco dining, as well as the hope that customers will return en masse to the restaurant once vaccinated. are becoming widely available in the United States.

“Restaurant chains, like humans, are incredibly adaptable entities,” said Ryan of Kearney.

Indeed, just a few weeks ago, caipirinhas were flowing freely and $ 135 Wagyu rib eye steaks sizzling as they were delivered to diners in a tent in Beverly Hills, Fogo de Chão. The location was the chain’s busiest, but many of its other restaurants also rebounded strongly.

At the start of November, the chain, which was based in Plano, Texas, and which was acquired in 2018 by investment firm Rhone Capital, was making 93% of the income it had made at the same time last year and had rehired about 90%. employees who had been laid off earlier in the year. Sixteen of its restaurants, largely located in states with fewer dining restrictions, had higher sales than last year.

But as states put new restrictions in place, Fogo de Chão returned to his previous playbook. He’s hauling food and a few weeks ago he contacted the owners again to negotiate the rental payments.

The once bustling Beverly Hills tent is empty after health officials shut down outdoor restaurants in Los Angeles County for three weeks. About 2,300 miles away, in a Detroit suburb, another tent is empty. Fogo de Chão had to remove three sides of the tent, per local health regulations, and now must find a way to add barriers to block the freezing winds.

But inside a cozy “Winter Wonderland” themed tent in Rosemont, Ill., A Chicago suburb where restaurants only need two open side panels, patrons can enjoy cocktails from shrimp and sip bottles of South American wine every night. they sit around heaters and under twinkling lights with Christmas music streaming through the speakers.

In an effort to keep as many workers employed as possible, Fogo de Chão is proposing to move some employees from temporarily closed locations to booming ones, including those in Las Vegas, Orlando, Dallas and Rosemont.

“Our goal is to keep our employees employed while on vacation,” said Mr. McGowan. “We hope that in January we will be able to open our patios and our tents in the parking lots again. And then the vaccine will come and hopefully by March or April we will be back to sort of normal.

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What places are hardest hit by the coronavirus? It depends on the measurement

What places are hardest hit by the coronavirus? It Depends on Measurement By Different Indicators All Kinds of Places in the United States are Deeply Disturbing, from Minot, ND to New York, by Mitch Smith, Amy Harmon, Lucy Tompkins and Thomas Fuller

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Americans rush to polls: ‘I’m going to vote as my life depends on it’

“The problems this country faces are generational,” said Michael McDonald, professor of political science at the University of Florida. He said the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, coupled with increased political engagement since Mr. Trump was elected, had produced a very energetic electorate.

Keep up with Election 2020

“We wish we could care about other things in our lives, but right now politics matters so much and people are engaged,” he said. generate such interest from voters, and early participation can sometimes be delayed for reasons ranging from different start dates to hurricane disruption.

But amid the rising turnout, concern grows about the yawning gap between the mail-in ballots that have been requested and those that have been returned. Within days of the end, 36 million ballots that were requested have not been returned or have been rejected. Many of these ballots could still be mailed or being processed or have been sent to people who now plan to vote in person.

Any problem with early voting is also likely to affect Democrats more than Republicans. In almost every state, Democrats have requested mail-in votes at a higher rate than Republicans. In Pennsylvania, nearly two million registered Democrats have requested postal votes, compared to less than 790,000 Republicans. And while 70% of those Democratic voters have returned their ballots, approximately 590,000 ballots sent to registered Democratic voters have yet to be returned, along with 360,000 ballots sent to registered Republicans.

Voters in Pennsylvania, one of the most important battleground states, have been increasingly baffled by the wave of disputes over the deadline for accepting ballots. The Supreme Court has left open the possibility of a future ruling on ballots that are postmarked on election day but arrive late, and the secretary of state has told all county election officials to separate those ballots. .

Concerns about the US Postal Service added to the anxiety. The agency said in a file that staffing issues resulting from the pandemic were causing problems at some facilities, including some in central Pennsylvania. Only 78 percent of employees are available, according to the filing.