Diego Rivera’s “Pan American Unity” has had more visitors in the past 10 months at SFMOMA than it had in the previous 25 years at City College of San Francisco.
The mural, currently on display at the Roberts Family Gallery, had been in a cramped and neglected theater on the City College campus. Now, with CCSF facing deep cuts, some wonder whether the work will ever make it back—and whether the proposed-but-unbuilt performing arts center that is to be its home will still serve a CCSF performing arts program.
“This mural has never been displayed so well in its 82 years of existence,” Will Maynez, a retired lab manager at City College who has become the de facto guardian of the mural, said of the work’s new home. Maynez vetted the deal with SFMOMA back in 2017 to transfer “Pan American Unity” from the school’s campus to the Roberts Gallery.
Rivera, the famed Mexican muralist and husband to Frida Kahlo, debuted the work in 1940 at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. It was soon after moved to City College where it was to be placed in a library that was never completed. It remained in storage until 1961 and was ultimately hung on an interior wall of what would become the Diego Rivera Theatre.
“It’s the most wonderful thing that’s happened to the mural,” Maynez continued, explaining that in its new temporary home it will serve as the centerpiece of an exhibit devoted to the Rivera, which opens July 16. Maynez estimates that tens of thousands of people have seen the piece since it arrived at SFMOMA on June 28, 2021.
The Diego Rivera Theatre, had been deteriorating for years. Last November so much rain water leaked into the building from the faulty roof that the seats were underwater up to the third row, according to Theatre Arts instructor Patricia Miller. “It wasn't an earthquake or an act of God,” said Miller. “That was just straight up neglect.”
Many on the school’s campus referred to the space as the “little theater,” because a new and bigger performing arts space has been in the offing for decades—and yet the promised performing arts center has yet to even break ground, despite three bond measures passed by the citizens of San Francisco for precisely that purpose.
In addition to expanding San Francisco’s selection of state-of-the-art theater spaces and serving as a draw for prospective students, the planned auditorium is also intended to provide a proper and permanent home for “Pan American Unity.” But the completion of the project is far from certain.
Although the mural was originally supposed to return to City College in the summer of 2023, the school negotiated for an extension until January 2024 to buy more time.
While those associated with the building committee believe the project is on track, many hurdles lie ahead. “You never know what's going to happen,” said Theatre Arts Department Chair Patrick Toebe. “Our biggest issue right now is inflation. The cost of materials keeps going up.”
If money runs out, Music Department Chair Madeline Mueller said she believes the project has a strong potential to go for a private funding match, noting there is a team ready to explore naming rights.
The auditorium’s grand design includes a 650-seat, proscenium arch theater, a 150-seat black box theater, recital hall, practice room, various music rooms and a costume shop. It will also have a glass-fronted exhibit space for the mural, which will be visible day and night. It’s a popular project with the public, who voted for the building’s existence on three separate occasions.
Yet the building won’t be ready until 2026, according to Toebe, so even with SFMOMA’s extension, that leaves two years that the mural would need to be in storage. While there’s an appropriate storage facility in Oakland available, transporting it across the Bay is out of the question—any movement is extraordinarily dangerous for the mural. “Jiggle plaster of Paris, and it's gone,” said Mueller.
Moving the mural from City College’s campus to SFMOMA was a delicate process that involved a specialized truck traveling at five miles per hour in the middle of the night on smooth roads. SFMOMA will pay to move the mural once more, but they will not cover a second move or storage for the mural.
Some question the expense of a new building in light of the school’s massive budget cuts, but its defenders say the money for its construction comes from a different bucket than faculty salaries. “There is a complete firewall between building money and general money to run the school,” Mueller said.
Others take issue with the idea that the college is pushing what Chancellor David Martin has called a “prestige project” while simultaneously destroying one of the very programs—the Theatre Arts Department—that would occupy the new performing arts center. Miller, whose pink slip was finalized last Friday, is responsible for teaching the entirety of the acting curriculum.
“The ironic thing is the voters of San Francisco have voted for a new performing arts center for the theater department,” Miller said. “But there will be no performing arts program.” The department will lose two thirds of its courses next year with the loss of one full-time and three part-time positions.
“There’s no one to light, there’s no one to costume, there’s no sets to build. It's a complete disaster,” Miller continued. With Miller’s position eliminated, the acting program will continue, but it will have to be taught by part-time instructors instead, according to Toebe.
Yet Mueller prefers to separate the imminent threat to the Theatre Arts Department from the long-term scope of the building project. “The public still needs the three stages. It needs it and they're paying for it.”
With so many uncertainties, the stewardship of the mural looms as an important and unresolved question. “The college needs to create a position and endow it,” said Maynez. “This is a world-class treasure.”
Julie Zigoris can be reached at [email protected]