A Diego Rivera mural in the San Francisco Art Institute

Diego Rivera, “Making a Fresco” (1931) at SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery

Diego Rivera paintings once were described as true and complete depictions of the life of the working masses. In the 1920s, the Mexican artist switched from easel to centuries-old fresco technique in part because frescoes that are chemically bonded to buildings are not easy to fold or resell.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Latin American art critic James Oles said that for Diego Rivera, his works were not goods. In a December 30 statement, an associate trade union professor at the besieged 150-year-old San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), which has recently been on the brink of bankruptcy, felt the same need to be said.

Rivera mural showing the city’s building, a 1931 Rivera mural depicting what the artist called a dynamic building concert – technicians, designers, and artists worked together to create a modern building. In other words, Rivera did not expect such a situation: public art, valued at $ 50 million, has become SFAI’s most liquid asset, said school spokeswoman Nina Sazevich in a statement, and the board intends to explore all ways the school’s assets work.

A Diego Rivera mural in the San Francisco Art Institute

However, unions argue that the social or use-value of a work of art – to use a Marxist formulation appropriate for Rivera – should not be subject to even such high exchange value. Diego Rivera mural is not a commodity, SEIU Local 1021 adjuncts said in a statement.

Rather, it is a work of art donated by a Mexican artist to a school dominated by white ministers that serve, among other things, as a hub for complex and ongoing negotiations between artists and art institutions on issues of race, class, access, and labor. In 1930, Rivera traveled to San Francisco with Frida Kahlo, then his wife, for orders that provided a critical foothold for a career in the United States: The Allegory of California at the Pacific Stock Exchange and The Making of a Mural shows the building of the city.

A Diego Rivera mural in the San Francisco Art Institute

Oles, curator of Diego Rivera’s 2022 America’s exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, described The Making of a Mural as unique to a particular location. Rivera and the patrons, engineers, and workers who created the work appear on and around the scaffolding, sharing scenes of local production and infrastructure, with the worker towering in the center like a skyscraper. You can imagine the art students watching Rivera paint the mural, Oles said.

Anthony Lee, another Rivera researcher, in the Oxford Art Journal, described one of many competing views of the Diego Rivera mural in the modernizing Depression-era San Francisco with a resurgent Communist Party: Rivera presented the city with his first such image, one could say that they are intended for the working class, directly busy rebuilding.

The time that Rivera created in San Francisco The creation of the mural and Allegory of California had a direct impact on the New Deal frescoes at Coit Tower and remains a touchstone, in particular for the steady movement of murals by the community associated with the city’s Latin American Mission area.

The creation of the mural, as in the case of the Coit Tower, and, as we know, the inclusion of Rivera Lenin in the fresco commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, sparked anti-communist censorship. During the post-war rule of Joseph McCarthy in Congress, the SFAI completely obscured the mural from view.

The Diego Rivera mural, while one-piece, can be technically detached from the wall.  George Lucas is interested in buying it for his Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.

But Oles believes that the prospect that the fresco will be lucky anywhere is exaggerated – it’s a ploy to attract sponsors. The board exaggerates for an uninformed audience how practical, easy, or possible it is to move, Oles continued, adding that they had not thought about practicality, legality, or ethics. And if local conservationists get the upper hand, the SFAI board won’t be able to sell the Diego Rivera mural.

San Francisco supervisor Aaron Peskin has introduced legislation designed to prevent the removal of the mural by designating it as a landmark. Peskin said that the prerogative should be to ensure that the Diego Rivera mural remains at the 800 Chestnut plant and remains open to the public.

Peskin noted that the campus is already a landmark, but it is unclear if that protects the interior mural. Although SFAI officials have publicly discussed monetizing the mural since April, they have not made any decisions regarding the possible sale of the artwork, spokesman Yoon Lee said in a statement.

There have been talks with several institutions about donating or purchasing murals to secure the future of the school and support our mission. As Hyperallergic previously reported, SFAI laid off most of its staff and teachers and canceled its fall recruitment at the start of the pandemic last March.

In July, the school went into technical default on an approximately $ 19 million loan, endangering the campus and the mural it had pledged as collateral. Pam Roarke Levy, chairman of the board, told Hyperallergic in an August interview that Boston Private Bank, the school’s main lender, has even begun to involve buyers in the Diego Rivera mural.

Levy explained that in conversations with some of the world’s greatest Latin American art collectors, they learned that someone from the bank was calling them. But they have no right to sell the Diego Rivera mural.

At the very least, the likelihood that the bank would auction this mural was averted. In October, as first reported by Mission Local, the University of California Regents acquired the SFAI debt ahead of the historic campus buyout sale, becoming the school’s owner.

But SFAI teachers, backed by advocates, argue the mural is not for sale either. The union has made a statement that the SFAI has found itself in this predicament due to the failures and negligence of the board members. Rather than taking financial responsibility for these failures, the board of directors tries to hide them from the public by converting the school’s most important cultural artifact into a monetary instrument.

Diego Rivera + SFAI

A Diego Rivera mural in the San Francisco Art Institute

The creation of a mural depicting the building of the city by the legendary monumental artist Diego Rivera occupies the center wall in the Diego Rivera Gallery, a modern exhibition space for new projects by SFAI artists.

The Diego Rivera mural was commissioned by SFAI President William Gerstl (1930–1931) and was completed by Rivera in one month, from May 1 to May 31, 1931.

The mural powerfully unites art and work. The Diego Rivera mural is the pure work of creative practice with the people who surround, support and fund the work of art. It has been noted as a provocative expression of Rivera’s politics and an example of the high status the artist attributed to the industrial worker.

The artist was an active member of the Mexican Communist Party in the 1920s and 1930s. His murals addressed prevailing social and political issues (in particular the Mexican Revolution) and depicted workers and artists engaged in activities of social significance or perceived power. Anti-communist sentiment in the United States made it nearly impossible for Rivera to obtain a visa to create a job in that country, and it eventually took a few people from disparate art and government sectors to fight anti-Rivera sentiment and secure a commission at SFAI.

A Diego Rivera mural in the San Francisco Art Institute
Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo & Anson Goodyear

Rivera’s very presence in the city was controversial, and his presence at SFAI was an example of the school’s willingness to absorb controversy for the sake of art. As the name suggests, the Diego Rivera mural depicts the city’s building and the creation of the mural, including various individuals who participated in the commission, as well as engineers, artist assistants, sculptors, architects, and handymen.

The central figure of a helmeted worker, depicted in supernatural proportions, can be seen as an example of Rivera’s status ascribed to an industrial worker, and is the main subject of the fresco inside the fresco – this is the figure that Rivera appears to look before work, holding a palette and brush, with his back to the viewer.

The Diego Rivera mural made SFAI an international center for the study of Rivera’s work and is considered an outstanding example of his mastery of technique. To stand in a gallery today is to be faced with a history of social criticism and artistic rebellion that stretches from the stucco of Rivera’s monumental wall to the stream of new practices by current SFAI artists. The past and the present converge here, but the spirit of iconoclasm, inconsistencies, and questions unites the works in the gallery into a common dialogue.



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