Art Conservators Begin Preservation Work on Diego Rivera Mural

By Lisa Martin


A plywood partition divides the lobby of the Diego Rivera Theatre as art experts and conservators continue the work they began over the summer preserving the “Pan American Unity” mural painted by artist Diego Rivera and preparing it for a loan to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).

City College and SFMOMA first announced plans for the two-year loan in December 2017. The museum first approached the school about borrowing the mural while organizing an exhibition planned for October 2020 on Rivera’s work. 

“Pan American Unity” mural ⁠— a massive fresco that combines indigenous mesoamerican symbols, views of San Francisco bay, notable figures from the era and throughout history and presided over by a towering statue that is part Aztec goddess, part industrial machinery ⁠— is Rivera’s largest mural and the last that he painted in the United States, completed in 1940. “For years I have felt that the real art of the Americas must come as a result of the fusion of the mechanism and new creative power of the north with the tradition rooted in the soil of the south, the Toltecs, Tarascans, Mayas, Incas, etc,” said Rivera.

It was painted as part of the second session of the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE), a world fair held on Treasure island, as part of the “Art in Action” exhibit in which artist’s from around the world, including Rivera himself, created their works of art in full view of the public. The mural was designed to be taken apart and transported because Timothy Pflueger, a San Francisco architect with ties to both the GGIE and to what was then still known as San Francisco Junior College, had arranged for ownership of the mural to be transferred to the school. 

The agreement between City College and SFMOMA includes museum internships for students and curriculum development, according to Chief of Staff to the Chancellor’s Office Leslie Milloy who has been involved in coordinating with SFMOMA. 

A corner of the “Pan American Unity” mural can be seen past the sign saying “Please Do Not Enter” at the Diego Rivera Theater on August 22, 2019. Photo by Lisa Martin/The Guardsman.

SFMOMA has also agreed to pay all costs associated with restoring, moving, storing the mural, and moving it back.

Experts in fields that range from art conservation to physics to transportation have been strategizing how exactly to move the artwork, which is just over 22 feet high and 73 feet long, made up of 10 panels made of steel and plaster and bolted together. It weighs 23 tons in total, and each panel will have to be transported in separate vehicles.

The mural will remain at the Diego Rivera Theatre until April 2020. According to Milloy, students and visitors will still be able to view the mural and the work that’s being done on it from the mezzanine level of the theater during docent-led hours. However, signage at the Theatre says entry is limited to City College and SFMOMA project staff and “Please Do Not Enter.”

The work being done now is to clean and stabilize the mural. Using special sponges, conservators are removing years of dust. According to Milloy, the mural is now markedly cleaner and some have said that it looks brighter and the contrast in the colors is better now that the grime has been removed. A stabilization compound is also being added that appears white on the mural but will protect fragile areas during the move and can be easily removed by conservators.

The timing of this is opportune for the school as they are planning on moving the mural to the Performing Arts Education Center. “The hope is the timing works so [the mural] goes right to the Performing Arts Education Center [after the SFMOMA] and the college will not have had to pay for that very complicated move,” said Milloy. 

There is currently no date set to “break ground” on the construction of the Performing Arts Education Center. Over the years, many buildings projects have been proposed to display the mural. 

Originally, the plan was to feature the mural in the reading room of the Pflueger Library — which was never built. Instead, the mural was put in storage for two decades before it came to its current home in what is now known as the Diego Rivera Theatre. 

In the 90s, there was a discussion about putting the mural in the atrium of the Rosenberg Library and, when that didn’t pan out, creating a dedicated building for it called the “Pan American Center”.

Although the Memorandum of Understanding between City College and SFMOMA is still being finalized, Milloy said that there was “absolutely no risk that we wouldn’t be getting the mural back.”

The Guardsman