Fate of $50m Diego Rivera mural uncertain as campus of bankrupt San Francisco Art Institute hits the market

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The campus of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) is now available for purchase after the school entered foreclosure earlier this year. The financially embattled institution closed its doors to new students in 2020, embarking on an acquisition deal with the University of San Francisco in February 2022 that subsequently fell through. In April, SFAI filed for bankruptcy, less than a year after its last matriculation of students.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, SFAI owes $450,000 in unpaid rent at its main campus and $750,000 in unpaid rent at its former property at Fort Mason. Numerous other creditors are owed tens of thousands of dollars. The asking price for the campus has not been disclosed.

SFAI is home to Diego Rivera’s 1931 mural The Making of a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City, a cultural gem valued at $50m whose future remains uncertain. Gregg Kleiner, a lawyer for the SFAI bankruptcy estate, asserts that the mural can be sold along with the school’s real estate properties—whether as part of the building that houses it or separately following removal.

Diego Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931) at the San Francisco Art Institute. Photo: Steve Rhodes.

“Based on available information, the mural was designed to be removable from the real property,” Kleiner told the Chronicle. “If the bankruptcy estate receives a viable offer for the mural only, the Trustee is likely to propose a sale of mural alone, subject to required notice and bankruptcy court approval.”

The SFAI property consists of two city-landmarked buildings in the Russian Hill neighbourhood of San Francisco, totalling around 93,000 sq. ft. Designed by architects Bakewell and Brown (who also designed San Francisco City Hall) in 1926, the campus is renowned for its beautiful bell tower, a rooftop amphitheatre, interior courtyard and its modernist addition designed by Paffard Keatinge-Clay.

“We believe this is a very rare and exciting opportunity for someone to acquire a huge chunk of Russian Hill real property that offers phenomenal views and very functional and cool real estate,” Tom Christian, an executive managing director at Cushman & Wakefield, told the Chronicle. “Where else can you get a belltower, a courtyard and 93,000 sq. ft of beautiful space overlooking Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower and all just a short walk to the Financial District, North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf?”

Given the demand for (non-commercial) real estate in the Bay Area, the SFAI campus may not be on the market for long. Across the bay in Oakland, the 60-acre campus of Holy Names University recently sold for more than $60m in less than three months.

SFAI’s is not the only Rivera mural on the move in San Francisco. The artist’s massive Pan American Unity (1940), which belongs to the City College of San Francisco but has been on view at SFMoMA since 2021, will soon relocate to a purpose-built theatre building on the CCSF campus with soaring glass walls.

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