The San Francisco Art Institute is closed. What happens to its $50 million Diego Rivera mural?

The recent shuttering of the San Francisco Art Institute was expected to close off the 151-year-old school’s Diego Rivera fresco to the public for the foreseeable future, just as it was about to host a grand reintroduction of the famous piece following a complete restoration .

The fresco, once valued at $50 million, was locked away this week after the historic Chestnut Street campus closed indefinitely following a failed bailout acquisition by the University of San Francisco. Though the fresco is on a plaster structure that could conceivably be detached and transported, its landmark status with the city means that it cannot legally be moved.

“It is a great loss to San Francisco, to the Bay Area and to the world,” said restoration Project Manager Zoya Kocur, who, as of Monday, was the only person on campus apart from a security detail. Kocur was hired in March to oversee the fresco’s restoration, inch by inch, with a four-person team using tiny tools smaller than toothbrushes.

The job was completed last month, and Kocur was arranging a year of academic and public events timed to coincide with the opening of a Diego Rivera exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

“The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” painted by Diego Rivera in 1931, sits in a private gallery.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

The educational part of the plan, along with the conservation work by a $200,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation in New York City, was made moot when USF announced it had backed out of the merger deal on Friday. All faculty and staff, whose number had dwindled to fewer than 50, were laid off. Another 50 or so students in both graduate and undergraduate programs were placed in limbo, leaving behind two lonely turtles swimming in the central fountain.

The fresco, Rivera’s first San Francisco commission, looked as bright as the day the famous Mexican artist finished it on a recent afternoon, and Kocur might be the last person to see it.

“It’s unfortunate because the SFMOMA show is happening and we were looking forward to a lot of cross-pollination,” said Kocur, who was also let go as a result of the school’s closure.

“I came in here to do this project and was able to accomplish the most important piece, which is conservation of the fresco so that it can last into perpetuity,” she said.

The fresco, entitled “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” was painted in one month, from May 1 to May 31, 1931, on commission from then-SFAI President William Gerstle.

“The work powerfully conflates art and labor — the sheer ‘work’ of creative practice with the individuals who surround, support, and fund a work of art,” is the description on the SFAI website. “The mural has been noted as a provocative expression of Rivera’s politics, and an example of the elevated status the artist attributed to the industrial worker.”

Rivera himself is in the mural, back to the viewer, brush in hand, clear jars of his mixed pigment below him. The fresco was painted on plaster in a frame that was bolted to the concrete wall behind it, with a space between the plaster and the concrete. The decision suggests that it was built to be removable, and that has been the speculation since the Art Institute revealed that it was in deep financial peril two years ago.

It was revealed in late 2020 that the Art Institute owed $19.7 million to the regents of the University of California, which had rescued it from default in a complicated lease arrangement. There was speculation that one way to pay that off would be to sell the Rivera fresco. The speculation was heightened by published reports at the time that George Lucas was interested in acquiring it for his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.

Fine brushstrokes show in “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” painted by Diego Rivera in 1931, now in a private San Francisco Art Institute gallery.

Fine brushstrokes show in “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” painted by Diego Rivera in 1931, now in a private San Francisco Art Institute gallery.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

The price bandied about at the time was $50 million. Pam Rorke Levy, then-president of the SFAI board of trustees, was emphatic that the fresco was not for sale and never had been.

“It might be our most valuable asset,” she told The Chronicle last year. “But if we cannot pay off that debt in six years, we will have to vacate the building and take the mural with us.”

This compelled Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents the Russian Hill neighborhood where the Art Institute is located, to introduce legislation to make the mural a city landmark separate from the Art Institute building, which is already landmarked. The legislation passed last October, making the mural permanent.

“It cannot be moved,” said Peskin in an email.

SFMOMA’s Rivera retrospective opened Friday, the day USF pulled out of the Art Institute acquisition deal, and runs through the end of the year.

Asked to predict when and how the restored Rivera mural might be seen, Kocur said “I’m not an employee anymore, so I don’t know what will happen.”

Neither does anybody else. The board of trustees is trying to figure out where the 151-year-old school goes from here. A foundation is being created to protect the name, legacy and archive of the institution. It is not known whether this will include the mural.

“The Diego Rivera mural is an artwork of great importance and historical value to the SFAI community and the public, particularly the Latinx community,” said John Marx, vice chair of the school’s board. “It is one of SFAI’s most cherished treasures, a masterpiece of 20th century art that we have been preserving for the past 90 years.”

The Art Institute owns the mural, but the regents of UC now own the building and the land under it. If the Art Institute defaults on its lease, it could also lose the mural, its most valuable asset.

“Tragic,” was the one-word summary of the situation offered by Peskin.