Terence Clarke

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The End of San Francisco?

January 21, 2021

The famous Diego Rivera mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931), at the San Francisco Art Institute, is in mortal danger.

The Art Institute’s financial difficulties are well known in San Francisco, and the reasons for them are justly decried. The transformation of one of the warehouse buildings on the docks below Fort Mason into a second facility a few years ago was a mistake, both financially and aesthetically. It is an artistically pointless boondoggle that cost millions, and therefore a prime source of the Art Institute’s current troubles.

To alleviate the debt, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has proposed selling the mural, assessed at a value of fifty millions dollars, to George Lucas, to be placed eventually in his Los Angeles museum. (For the details of the situation, click here.) Were that to happen, what is perhaps the most important single piece of art in San Francisco would leave the city. San Francisco and those here who place deep importance on the emotional and intellectual worth of fine art would be deprived forever. Mind you, I’m not speaking just of the well-fixed who sit on boards and contribute large sums to maintain San Francisco’s place as an art center. I am speaking of the many viewers one always sees looking at the mural (during non-Covid times, of course.) This includes the enormous Latinx community that lives in the city, and those other communities of color and ethnicity who find in the mural a staunch reminder of why it has such importance in the city’s remarkable racial history, good and bad.

Little can diminish the importance of the Art Institute to San Francisco, and to the city’s future. The Rivera mural itself symbolizes that importance. But also, a brief look at who studied or taught here establishes it as a major font of important American art. A few of those? Annie Leibovitz, Imogen Cunningham, Joan Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, Ansel Adams, Linda Connor, Manuel Neri, and David Park, among many, many others.

Without the Art Institute, San Francisco would take a major step backward. San Francisco State University, from which I received a master’s degree in English Literature, remains an important center for the visual, musical, and literary arts. But the Art Institute is its own deeply important entity and deserves the opportunity to save itself and to be reborn as the major arts institution it has so prominently been.

Here is a modest proposal…. The University of California recently bought the Institute’s debt. That purchase includes the ownership of the Institute’s building. The Institute itself now has a six-year lease on the building, which gives it a window to raise the funds to save itself without selling the mural. But, if that is unsuccessful, the property will become a permanent possession of the University of California.

And that would include the Rivera mural.

My proposal is that the University actively step in now and make the Art Institute of San Francisco a separate campus in the University of California system. Of course, it would be a place devoted to the visual arts, but I would also make it a principal home for dramatic writing as well as creative writing in general, film, video, acting, media arts, recorded music, performance studies, and other essential arts.

Something like the Tisch School of The Arts in Manhattan, part of New York University.

The current leadership of the Art Institute must also be relieved of their duties…immediately. For the last twenty years, the Institute has been diminished by poor decision-making and bad management. When the University of California takes over, this is the first change that must take place. 

All this is pie in the sky, perhaps. But I don’t think so. The Institute can be remade into a vital center for the creative arts, as is Tisch, and a major source of those arts into the future. It needs fine, insightful management with a true business sense and the kind of major emotional commitment to the arts that, if the Art Institute disappears, will sink into real decline in this city.

The Institute and Diego Rivera’s remarkable mural are too important to San Francisco for that to happen. 

Terence Clarke lives on Russian Hill, two blocks from the San Francisco Art Institute. The Rivera mural was a principal inspiration for his novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro


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