On January 21, Diego Rivera’s 10-panel Pan American Unity mural, viewed by 650,000 people at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, will be disassembled and put into storage for an undetermined length of time. It belongs to City College of San Francisco, which in 1961 installed it in a cramped, badly-lit, and now seismically unsafe theater lobby, but which has built no new place to display it now that it is returning. Meanwhile SFMOMA and CCSF have filed suit and counter-suit about paying transfer costs.
Melancholy posts are circulating on the internet about the imminent shelving of this bright and beautiful fresco mural. While this may be seen as merely sad, akin to the end of a long-running stage show, or the passing of a beloved performer, the reality is that the mural continues to exist, and its closeting has been foreseeable, is without justification, and has been entirely avoidable. As a long-time teacher at City College who used the mural to teach analysis and research, and a member of its Works of Art Committee, I have watched this moment approach like a car crash seen in slow motion.
From 2017 to 2021, when SFMOMA was negotiating with CCSF about the move of this 23 ton masterpiece across San Francisco, CCSF’s Board of Trustees and administration were arranging the construction of a new performing arts building, into which the Rivera mural would be placed as a visual centerpiece at its entrance. They selected a contractor (McCarthy), worked on the building’s square footage, decided the construction technique, and right before the pandemic, had a bond measure passed, the largest in decades, to fund construction.
Then in late 2020 through 2021, the Board and two Interim Chancellors upended their own plan, canceling their contract with McCarthy, overturning the agreed upon “design-build method,” bickering over square footage formulas, and rejecting a pandemic-era bidding process. Thus, while the mural was moved and installed at SFMOMA, CCSF set back its construction plans several years.
Why? Causes are assigned variously: some fault Interim Chancellor Vurdien, who presided over the McCarthy cancelation, or the Board of Trustees who oversaw construction planning and funding. Some blame nefarious consultants or developers; others fault larger political forces like the state Community College system, or the downstream effects of the CCSF’s 2012-2015 accreditation crisis, leaving a revolving door of administrators (typically lasting no more than a couple of years).
When I interviewed one-time Board member (and long-time chair of the Facilities sub-committee) John Rizzo, he defended Chancellor Vurdien, and said that the responsibility for the contract cancelation was the Board’s. But when I asked him the reason why the Board originally wrote and later canceled the McCarthy contract, which delayed construction several years, he said that he could not talk about it under the terms of a legal agreement, violation of which would lead to CCSF being sued. Apparently no one is responsible, and no explanation is to be had.
The hiring of David Martin as “Permanent Chancellor” at the end of 2021 marked a pause in this downward spiral: he prioritized funding for the performing arts center to house the mural, relaunched the competitive bidding process, and advanced the state approval for construction. He seemed to realize that building appropriate housing for a world-class art work was in the interest of both City College and his own professional self-interest. But just over two years later, Martin has re-thought his self-interest and is departing City College in June, and SFMOMA is suing CCSF, which is filing a countersuit over moving and other costs. The return to a familiar rudderless disarray at City College is not reassuring for several reasons, not the least of which is that the mural’s fate may once again be an afterthought.
And without being able to explain an exact cause for this lamentable situation, or to identify responsible parties with precision, I am sure that a “tag team” of CCSF administrators and Board members, and not the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, have created this completely avoidable situation, and will soon be sequestering this bright and beautiful painting, two stories high and a quarter of a football field wide, into darkness, degrading its status to that of a privileged but neglected child, one who will hopefully be released from its closet sooner rather than later, into a safe and well-lit space that welcomes its public once again.
But given the effects of the “revolving door,” we cannot be sure. And eventually, the people most responsible for this travesty will be identified and called to account, hopefully before they depart from this earthly realm.
Jeff Goldthorpe is a local writer who taught English at City College for 25 years, including 10 years serving on the Works of Art Committee and teaching research and analysis using Rivera’s mural. He retired in 2021. This is his own view, and not that of the Works of Art Committee.