SFAI's Diego Rivera Gallery is housed at 800 Chestnut Street in San Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhood. (all images courtesy SFAI)

In a reversal of fortune for advocates opposed to the sale of a Diego Rivera mural at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and all those concerned with the preservation of public art, the school has received a $200,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation in support of the beloved painting.

It is an occasion to celebrate for those who have anxiously monitored the uncertain fate of Rivera’s “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” (1931). Before the pandemic hit, SFAI was already anticipating bad times to come, approximately $19 million deep in debt from acquisitive expansions and anemic enrollments. The outlook only darkened in 2020, with the school announcing that classes would not continue that fall. Notoriously, the art school’s leaders suggested selling SFAI’s masterpiece of Mexican muralism — estimated then at $50 million — in a last-ditch effort to save the school.

The mural graces the north wall of the Diego Rivera Gallery on SFAI’s campus at 800 Chestnut Street, where the artist painted it in 1931 with the help of assistants John Hastings and Clifford Wright.

Rivera’s mural was almost dismantled and sold before it was designated a landmark.

Board members’ intentions to sell the mural drew swift backlash from vocal critics including members of SFAI’s adjunct faculty union and alum Catherine Opie. In January 2021, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to designate the mural a landmark, making it significantly more difficult for it to be sold as planned. The institution now appears to be on more solid ground, announcing in February that it would be merging with the University of San Francisco. 

One silver lining of the upheaval over the painting’s potential dismantlement and transfer to private ownership was that it spurred heightened awareness around the mural’s significance to San Francisco art history.

The mural — which depicts Rivera painting a monumental mural of a worker with the help of several assistants while construction workers install trompe l’oeil steel girders — unmasks the hidden labor that underwrites creativity and art. It also portrays three wealthy patrons, who were real historical figures involved in hosting Rivera in San Francisco, at the foot of the mural. When the mural was commissioned by SFAI President William Gerstle, the school explicitly requested that the subject of Rivera’s painting be “anything but of a political nature.” But the completed work is staunchly political, refusing the possibility of alienating art from the conditions of its creation. 

The Mellon grant will support “the first phase of a multi-faceted initiative” around the mural that will include public programming, conservation work, dedicated scholarship, and the preservation and digitization of related archival materials. On-site interpretive materials will be developed, and a website focused on the mural will offer access to curricular resources. The grant will also fund the establishment of the Diego Rivera Project Advisory Committee, which will expand SFAI’s college curriculum, accessibility to the arts in local schools and communities, and lectures and symposia. 

A photograph shows Rivera pictured in front of his fresco, completed in 1931.

“In addition to prominent Latinx scholars, we plan to involve advisors from museums and community-based arts organizations, K-12 school partners, artists and art students, and government and international partners,” art historian and museum specialist Zoya Kocur, who recently joined SFAI as the Diego Rivera Fresco Program manager, said in a statement.

“Further study of the mural will offer opportunities to expand conversations around art conservation, address the always-relevant topic of the intersections of politics and art, Mexican-US relations, and examine how the SFAI fresco, in particular, continues to influence and inspire contemporary artists,” Kocur told Hyperallergic.

“For art historians, the fresco offers numerous possibilities for further study of techniques and fresco painting of that period, as well as the additional historical study of the figures depicted in the fresco, and the influence of Rivera’s projects on the vibrant public mural movements in San Francisco, and Los Angeles, that continue to flourish in the present,” Kocur added.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.