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SFMOMA removes famed Diego Rivera mural. It could be gone for years

A mural is barely visible behind glass doors.
Diego Rivera’s mural, titled “Pan American Unity,” is visible through closed doors at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Ever since Diego Rivera’s “Pan American Unity” made its very slow, very deliberate journey from the City College of San Francisco campus to SFMOMA’s Roberts Family Gallery in 2021, the fate of the famed fresco has been up in the air

The exhibition housing the mural closed Sunday. Now, handwringing over the artwork's future is again on vivid display amid dueling legal complaints between the college and the museum. Appreciators of the Mexican master’s influential mural—considered one of the greatest artworks depicting the city of San Francisco—fear that it will be unviewable by the public for several years. And likely even longer. 

A mural is barely visible behind doors.
The doors have officially closed on Diego Rivera’s mural, titled “Pan American Unity,” at SFMOMA. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

A lawsuit filed by SFMOMA in October alleges that City College did not fulfill its contractual obligations regarding expenses associated with the mural and “failed to engage in time-sensitive, necessary planning to facilitate the de-installation of CCSF’s Mural from SFMOMA’s premises.” City College, in turn, filed a counterclaim in November. 

City College Board of Trustees President Alan Wong said it was the museum’s idea to extend the exhibition beyond its original two-year run and that it bears responsibility for going over the $3.975 million cap related to the mural’s expenses, including transit. “They've asked us to use our bond dollars, and we cannot use our bond dollars,” Wong said. “Our bond dollars are for our buildings, for our classrooms.”

Asked which party should be paying for the mural’s costly transfer back to City College's Ingleside campus—traveling at 5 mph on trucks with custom-made shock absorbers—the trustee replied, “They should be.” 

Nevertheless, the removal of the mural is proceeding as planned, according to museum representatives, who said the artwork will be taken down this month in order to make way for a new exhibition in SFMOMA’s Roberts Family Gallery.   

“We are committed to ensuring the successful and safe de-installation and return of the mural,” said a spokesperson for the museum. 

A museum stands behind trees and a motorcyle on the street.
Vehicles drive in front of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where the "Pan American Unity" mural by Diego Rivera will be de-installed. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Longtime mural caretaker and expert Will Maynez does not have any concerns about the safety of the Rivera mural because a company specializing in transporting large works, Atthowe Fine Art Services, will again be responsible for moving it. “They’re the best around,” he said. 

But the mural's next temporary resting place has raised concerns. The Rivera is set to be stored indefinitely on City College’s campus, awaiting the construction of a new performing arts center that has been mired by delays—the most recent being the school’s cancellation of a contract with McCarthy Building Companies to construct the building designed by LMN Architects. The reasons for the cancellation remain unclear, and a spokesperson for McCarthy said City College “chose to end the agreement for their convenience” in November 2020. 

However, doubts have been raised about City College’s ability to store “Pan American Unity” safely in the interim, as the theater where the mural was located had been badly flooded during the pandemic. “The water had white caps,” said Madeline Mueller, a professor of music at the school.

Mueller, who sits on the school’s Works of Art Committee and has been working for decades to build a new performing arts center, believes the theater has been unfairly portrayed as dark and cramped, unbefitting an important work like Rivera’s. She said that the building’s lobby, where the mural is to be stored, has had no past flooding issues. In any case, the school did not have other options. 

“We looked everywhere for storage,” Mueller said. “But it’s just too damned big.” 

From Mueller’s perspective, the yet-to-be-constructed performing arts center that will serve as the mural’s permanent home is back on track, with a design, funds and contractor secured. 

The project is awaiting approval from the Division of the State Architect, which could take up to a year. The estimated time of construction is at least 18 months, Mueller said, so assuming there are no supply chain issues, the earliest a new building could open is fall 2026. 

Returning "Pan American Unity" to the public will be welcome news to Maynez, who believes the mural has been a woefully under-recognized gem of the city—at least until half a million visitors enjoyed the artwork at SFMOMA over the past few years. 

People sit at tables beside plastic sheeting.
More than half a million visitors saw "Pan American Unity" when it was on display for free at SFMOMA, but now the mural is shrouded in plastic sheeting. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

“The mural was such a great ambassador for San Francisco,” he said. “As the city rebuilds its tourism, they need to highlight these things.” 

A resolution of the lawsuits remains unclear, and City College’s recent placement on a warning list by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges could prove to be another hurdle in the school’s future. 

Until the new building is erected—whether by 2026 or well beyond—Rivera’s great mid-century masterpiece will join two more of the artist's large-scale works in San Francisco that are not readily accessible to the public: the mural at the now-shuttered San Francisco Arts Institute and the fresco at the private City Club, which used to offer tours that have gone on hiatus since the pandemic. 

“It’s kind of a shame it’s ending on such a sour note,” Maynez said.

Julie Zigoris can be reached at jzigoris@sfstandard.com