Diego Rivera, “Making a Fresco” (1931) at SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery (via Joaquín Martínez/Flickr)

SAN FRANCISCO — Diego Rivera once described his paintings as “true and complete pictures of the life of the toiling masses.” In the 1920s, the Mexican artist turned from the easel to the centuries-old fresco technique in part because murals chemically fused to buildings weren’t so easily hoarded or resold. “The whole point for him,” Latin American art scholar James Oles said in an interview with Hyperallergic, “was they’re not commodities.” 

In a December 30 statement, union adjunct faculty at the beleaguered, 150-year-old San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), lately verging on insolvency, felt compelled to make the same point.  

The union decried board members’ consideration of selling “The Making of a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City,” a 1931 Rivera mural depicting what the artist called a “dynamic concerto of construction — technicians, planners and artists working together to create a modern building.” 

Rivera, in other words, didn’t anticipate this situation: The public art appraised at $50 million has become SFAI’s “most liquid asset,” school spokesperson Nina Sazevich said in a statement, and “the board is committed to investigating all ways of putting the school’s assets to work.” 

The union adjuncts, though, assert that the artwork’s social or use value — to use a Marxist formulation befitting Rivera — shouldn’t be subordinate to even that much exchange value.

“The Diego Rivera mural is not a commodity,” reads the statement from SEIU Local 1021-affiliated adjuncts. “Rather it is an artwork, given by a Mexican artist to a predominately white-serving school, that serves among many things as a focal point for complex and ongoing negotiations between artists and art institutions around issues of race, class, access, and labor.”

In 1930, Rivera traveled to San Francisco with Frida Kahlo, then his wife, for the commissions that would provide a critical career foothold in the United States: “Allegory of California” at the Pacific Stock Exchange Building and “The Making of a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City. 

Oles, curator of Diego Rivera’s America, a 2022 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, described “The Making of a Fresco” as uniquely site-specific. Rivera and the patrons, engineers, and laborers who created the work, appear on and around scaffolds dividing scenes of local manufacturing and infrastructure, with a worker towering in the center like a skyscraper. 

“You can imagine art students watching Rivera painting himself painting the mural,” Oles said.

Anthony Lee, another Rivera scholar, in the Oxford Art Journal described one of many competing views of the feted mural in a modernizing, Depression-era San Francisco with a resurgent Communist Party: “[Rivera] was providing the city with its first such image which could be said to be for and about the working classes who were directly engaged in reconstruction.”

Rivera’s time in San Francisco creating “The Making of a Fresco” and “Allegory of California” directly influenced the New Deal murals at Coit Tower, and remains a touchstone, in particular, for the abiding community mural movement associated with the city’s Latinx Mission district. 

“The Making of a Fresco,” like the Coit Tower works and, notoriously, Rivera’s inclusion of Lenin in a mural commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, provoked anti-Communist censorship. During Joseph McCarthy’s postwar congressional reign, SFAI completely blocked the mural from view.  

The Rivera mural, though in one piece, is technically detachable from the wall, and George Lucas is reportedly interested in buying it for his Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. But Oles believes the prospect of the mural going anywhere is overblown — a ploy to attract donors.  

“The board is exaggerating to an uninformed audience how practical, easy, or possible it is to move,” Oles continued, adding they haven’t “thought through the practicality, legality, or ethics.”

And if local preservationists prevail, the SFAI board won’t have the chance to sell the mural. 

Last week, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced legislation intended to prevent the mural’s removal by designating it a landmark. “It should be our prerogative to ensure that the mural remain at the 800 Chestnut facility and remain open to the public,” Peskin said. The campus is already a landmark, Peskin noted, but it’s unclear if that protects the interior mural. 

Although SFAI officials have publicly discussed monetizing the mural since April, they’ve made “no determinations regarding the possible sale of artworks,” spokesperson Yun Lee said in a statement. “Conversations have been taking place with several institutions about the possibility to endow or acquire the mural to ensure the future of the school and uphold our mission.”

As Hyperallergic previously reported, SFAI laid off most staff and teachers and canceled fall enrollment at the outset of the pandemic last March. In July, the school entered technical default on a loan of some $19 million, jeopardizing the campus and mural  that it had pledged as collateral. 

Pam Rorke Levy, the board chair, in an August interview with Hyperallergic disclosed that Boston Private Bank, the school’s main creditor, had even begun soliciting buyers for the mural. “In the course of talking to some of the world’s greatest Latin American art collectors, we found out someone from the bank was calling them,” Levy explained. “Well, it’s not theirs to sell.”

The possibility of a bank auctioning the mural, at least, appears to have been averted. In October, as Mission Local first reported, the University of California Regents acquired SFAI’s debt ahead of a foreclosure sale of the landmark campus, becoming the school’s landlord. 

But SFAI teachers, backed by preservationists, argue the mural isn’t the board’s to sell, either. 

“SFAI finds itself in this predicament directly because of its board members’ failures and negligence,” reads the adjunct union statement. “Rather than assume fiscal responsibility for these failures, the board attempts to conceal them from the public by translating the school’s most important cultural artifact into a monetary instrument.” 

Sam Lefebvre (@Lefebvre_Sam) is a freelance writer in Oakland whose journalism and criticism have appeared in publications including the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wire, Pitchfork, the Believer,...