Diego Rivera’s 1931 “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” is at the San Francisco Art Institute. (Courtesy SFAI)

Diego Rivera’s 1931 “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” is at the San Francisco Art Institute. (Courtesy SFAI)

Supervisors move to protect Art Institute Diego Rivera mural

Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced legislation Tuesday to landmark the San Francisco Art Institute’s 1931 Diego Rivera mural in wake of the school’s recent sale.

The fate of the mural, “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” by legendary artist Rivera is in question as the 149-year-old art school is in significant debt. The Regents of the University of California bought the 149-year-old art school’s $19.7 million debt in October, Mission Local first reported.

SFAI’s 95-year-old main campus at 800 Chestnut St. in Russian Hill itself has been under landmark status since 1977, but it’s possible that, as a part of the interior, the mural could be sold and removed.

“It should be our prerogative to ensure that these Diego Rivera murals remain at the 800 Chestnut facilities and remain open to the public,” Peskin said at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday. “There’s a legal argument that the existing design for 800 Chestnut St. would subject the murals to landmark designation, there’s some legal question around that.”

Much of the prestigious art school’s financial problems began with its ambitious 2015 expansion to Fort Mason, which it has since retreated from. SFAI still has about 55 years on the lease and sought a subtenant while remaining optimistic that it would one day return to Fort Mason.

After shelter-in-place orders arrived, SFAI told faculty and roughly 300 students that it would not offer degree programs in the fall. Classes were reinstated after Boston Private Bank & Trust Company filed a foreclosure notice in July for defaulting on its $19 million debt, which SFAI attributed to lacking cash reserves.

UC Regents are part of a longstanding agreement to serve as SFAI’s “remainder trustees” and officially took the helm as landlords in October, forking over nearly $20 million from the public university system to save the art school from foreclosure.

However, SFAI must still pay off its debt one day. “All options to save SFAI” are on the table, school administrators told staff and faculty in a December letter — including the Diego Rivera mural, Mission Local reported. The fresco, commended for linking art to labor, makes up the central wall of the Diego Rivera Gallery, which showcases SFAI artwork.

SFAI was not immediately available to comment.

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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