By Danny Meeks
City College filed a cross-complaint to the San Francisco Superior Court on Thursday in response to a lawsuit initiated by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in early October. SFMOMA’s Oct. 12 statement accused City College of refusing to pay for the return of the Diego Rivera Pan American Unity Mural, which is currently on display on the museum’s first floor, free-to-the-public gallery space.
“Our partnership had an agreed upon multi-million dollar budget for [SFMOMA] to take care of and return,” said City College Board of Trustees President Alan Wong. “Now they haven’t returned the mural by the agreed-upon deadline, exceeded the budget, and want money meant for our school buildings to foot the bill.”
According to the museum’s statement, the estimated round-trip cost to transport and preserve the 30-ton, 74-foot by 22-foot mural was $6.2 million, with SFMOMA’s share capped at $3.975 million. However, the budget written into the original agreement estimated the project — including the $1 million the museum planned to reserve for the mural’s return to City College — at 3.975 million, the entirety of SFMOMA’s contribution.
According to the museum’s court filing, “Despite its express agreement and a ready source of funding for the Mural project — $181.3 million of San Francisco bond funds prominently earmarked for the “Diego Rivera Theater with Mural” — CCSF is now disregarding the Agreement and refusing to hold up its end of the bargain.”
City College challenges the validity of the museum’s statement. President Wong said, “The agreement further stipulates that if SFMOMA cannot return the artwork as agreed upon, it must amend the agreement in writing.”
The Pan-American Unity mural, or The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent as Rivera originally conceived it, was painted in front of a live audience on ten portable steel-framed concrete slabs for the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island.
City College received the mural to adorn a new library when the exposition ended. However, World War II derailed construction, and the mural sat in storage for twenty years until it was finally installed in the Diego Rivera Theater on City College Ocean Campus in 1961.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, the Diego Rivera Theater was deemed seismically unstable. City College agreed to loan the historic work of public art to SFMOMA while the theater underwent renovations.
Architect Sam Miller of LMN, the firm responsible for designing the new Diego Rivera Theater, told the San Francisco Chronicle in June that, contrary to the agreed upon return date, construction on the new theater will not be completed until 2027.
With evidence suggesting the theater won’t open until three years after the return date, SFMOMA points to a clause in the original contract that could absolve them of further financial responsibility.
“In the event that the new Performing Arts Center at CCSF is not ready for the timely installation of the Artwork following September 1, 2023, due to construction, budgetary, or any other reasons outside of SFMOMA’s control,” the museum court filing states, “CCSF must pay for all costs associated with the insurance, interim storage, relocation, and reinstallation of the Artwork after September 1, 2023.”
Ultimately, the court must determine, in what is likely to be years of litigation, whether the budgetary decisions leading up to the lawsuit were “outside of SFMOMA’s control.” In the meantime, the public can still view Rivera’s Pan-American Unity free of charge in the Robert’s Family Gallery at SFMOMA.