The Future of the Diego Rivera Mural at SFAI

On December 23, 2020, Jennifer Rissler and Mark Kushner disclosed in an email to the SFAI community that the Board of Trustees has voted to include the sale of the Diego Rivera mural in its exploration of potential pathways toward financial recovery. As representatives of the SFAI adjunct faculty and as stakeholders in the SFAI community, we feel duty-bound to critique the reasons for the board’s decision, to intervene in what we feel are actions by the board that will critically damage the school’s reputation, legacy, and position, and, if necessary, to publicly expose the board’s fiscal and ethical irresponsibility, blatant disregard for the mural’s cultural significance, and unfitness to serve as either the mural’s or the school’s custodian. Below, we summarize information that we have gathered from public reporting, members of the Reimagine Committee, and independent research. This represents the first step in our efforts to stop the sale of the Diego. The next step will be an open meeting with you on January 12, in which we will strategize how to move forward on this front, as well as on other goals related to the school’s leadership and governance. We believe that any sale of the mural resulting in its removal from the Chestnut campus is unconscionable, and we ask for your ideas and resources as we map out ways to prevent it.   

SFAI acquired its $19 million debt primarily through the ninety-nine year lease and renovation of the Fort Mason facility that the Board of Trustees initially promised to finance through fundraising. Failing this commitment almost totally, the Board put up the Chestnut campus (and “all artwork”) as collateral for SFAI’s debt with Boston Private Bank & Trust. In late spring of this year, the bank declared SFAI in default, as reported by Hyperallergic and Mission Local. Citing public records from the City of San Francisco, Mission Local reported today that the UC Board of Regents bought out SFAI’s $19 million debt from Boston Private. In the immediate sense, this means that SFAI is no longer in foreclosure. At the same time, this means that, instead of the bank, the UC Regents is now SFAI’s creditor. The UC Regents now owns 800 Chestnut, which SFAI is renting. We have learned that, upon exhausting its Covid relief funds, SFAI will go back into deficit in January, and we anticipate that, with so few students and such inadequate fundraising on the part of the board, SFAI will not be able to cover its operating expenses.  

This is where the Diego Rivera mural comes into play. Appraised at $50 million this past spring, its sale would resolve immediate financial shortfalls, yet we know from our colleagues on the Reimagine Committee that this would provide only a limited lifeline, and does not address patterns of misbehavior and mismanagement by SFAI’s board and executive officers. SFAI is not unique among colleges in its move to sell assets out of financial exigency, but aspects of this particular sale render it uniquely abhorrent. Had the board fulfilled its fundraising commitments at this or any point in recent years, and had they also pursued a more sustainable financial model instead of relying so heavily on tuition and adjunct labor, it is far less likely that the school would be considering the sale of the Diego with such desperation.   

To us, this desperation seems frustratingly misplaced, misconstrued, and misaligned with our sense of the school’s integrity as an institution of art, culture, and learning. The collective fortunes of the board’s members could easily make the school whole. While no sustainable model for a school entails a board bankrolling its operations, SFAI finds itself in this predicament directly because of its board members’ failures and negligence. Rather than assume fiscal responsibility for these failures, the board attempts to conceal them from the public by translating the school’s most important cultural artifact into a monetary instrument. In reducing the value of such an artwork to pure commodity, the board undermines its school’s own pedagogy and the value that art’s worth is not limited to its market price. Further, we have a predominately white and extremely affluent board that is seeking to protect its own wealth by selling the work of an artist of color to another white and incredibly powerful buyer. This board refuses even to hear concerns or guidance from its stakeholders and crucially by people of color within SFAI. Both the faculty senate and the Reimagine Committee submitted letters to the board during the 12/17 board meeting demanding that the mural should not be removed, and asked that the letters be heard aloud during the Board Meeting in which the mural sale was the focus. Board President Pam Rorke Levy refused this request, and threatened layoffs if they didn’t immediately sell the mural to the buyer they had lined up who needed it for “his museum” in LA. 

The Diego Rivera mural is not a commodity whose identity and worth resides exclusively in its market valuation. Rather, it is an artwork, given by a Mexican artist to a predominately white-serving school, that serves among many things as a focal point for complex and ongoing negotiations between artists and art institutions around issues of race, class, access, and labor. While many institutions around the country are actively addressing structural racism and hostility toward people of color within higher education, our school’s leadership subordinates the cultural value of the mural to its $50 million dollar sales price. It doesn’t ask questions about what that cultural value might be, not even when prompted by its own community members. We strongly oppose SFAI’s pursuit of the sale of the Diego to its current prospective buyer, and to any decision about the Diego that disregards the input of other stakeholders. This is not because we don’t want to see SFAI survive, but because we have no confidence in the integrity of the current leadership to steward either the mural or the school. 

Please join us for an open meeting on January 12 at 7pm via Zoom. We also welcome your thoughts and recommendations in advance by email to sfaiadjuncts@gmail.com

Sincerely, The SFAI Adjunct Union Leadership 
 
Zoom info for January 12, 7pm:
https://seiu1021.zoom.us/j/83594144256
Meeting ID: 835 9414 4256
Passcode: 935950

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