On Tuesday, city officials unanimously voted to start the process to designate a beloved Diego Rivera mural as a landmark after the San Francisco Art Institute, which owns the $50 million painting, said that selling it would help pay off $19.7 million of debt.
Designating the mural as a landmark would severely limit how the 150-year-old institution could leverage it, and public officials behind the measure say that selling it is likely to be off the table for now. Removing the mural with landmark status would require approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which has broad authority.
“There’s a lot of money in this town,” said Andrew Peskin, an elected official from the district where the institute resides and a sponsor of the proposal. “There are better ways to get out of their mess than a harebrained scheme of selling the mural.”
The 1931 work, titled “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” is a fresco within a fresco. The tableau portrays the creation of both a city and a mural — with architects, engineers, artisans, sculptors and painters hard at work. Rivera himself is seen from the back, holding a palette and brush, with his assistants. It is one of three frescoes in San Francisco by the Mexican muralist, who was an enormous influence on other artists in the city.
Years of costly expansions and declining enrollment have put S.F.A.I. in a difficult financial situation made worse by the pandemic and a default on a loan. Last July, a private bank announced that it would sell the school’s collateral — including its Chestnut Street campus, the Rivera mural and 18 other artworks — before the University of California Board of Regents stepped in to buy the debt in October. Through a new agreement, the institute has six years to repurchase the property; if it doesn’t, the University of California would take possession of the campus.
Faced with the threat of foreclosure, school administrators have searched for a suitable buyer, although Pam Rorke Levy, the board’s chairwoman, has said that the school’s “first choice would be to endow the mural in place, attracting patrons or a partner institution that would create a substantial fund that would enable us to preserve, protect and present the mural to the public.”
Last month, Ms. Levy floated two possibilities with board members and staff. One involved the filmmaker George Lucas’s buying the mural for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. (The museum said it would not comment on speculation about acquisitions.) Another would have seen the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art take ownership of the mural but leave it on campus as an annexed space.
But a museum spokeswoman said that nothing came from early discussions. “We have no plans to acquire or endow the S.F.A.I. mural,” Jill Lynch, a communications officer with SFMOMA, told The New York Times.
The school’s Chestnut Street campus has been a designated landmark since 1977, but it was possible that, as part of the interior, the mural could have been sold or removed.
In recent days, former students and faculty members have organized to oppose any sale of the mural. They included the celebrated artist Catherine Opie, who published an open letter condemning the school board’s actions and announcing the withdrawal of a photograph she had planned to sell at a fund-raiser for the institute.
“I can no longer be a part of a legacy that will sell off an essential unique piece of history,” she wrote.
After hearing that the mural was likely to receive landmark status, Ms. Opie breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m thrilled and relieved,” she told The Times. I’m tired of seeing art leveraged as an asset in the first line of defense for institutions.”