By Renée Bartlett-Webber
City College’s cherished Diego Rivera mural is scheduled to return to the Ocean campus in September this year. After its three-year debut at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, known to locals as SFMOMA, the Pan American Unity mural will return home to the Diego Rivera Theater, but not quite as planned.
When City College and SFMOMA signed the Memorandum of Understanding to loan the mural to the museum in 2017, it seemed like a perfect arrangement. The intricate plans were paid for by the museum to feature the masterpiece as part of their Diego Rivera exhibit. The renowned museum also guaranteed deinstallation and a safe return in three years’ time. The mural would gain more viewership and City College would earn more recognition at MOMA during its display from Sept. 13, 2020 until Sept. 1, 2023. At the conclusion of the loan, it would be installed into the newly-built Performing Arts Education Center, also called the “new Diego Rivera Theater.” It all went seamless until construction of the new theater never started.
The City College board of trustees explored tentative options for other temporary placements. The Treasure Island Museum showed interest in having the mural on loan. However, community members voiced their opposition, citing air pollutants, expense of transportation and installation and the long length of the loan (five years, according public commenter Harry Bernstein). On March 23 , Trustee Vick Chung announced that the board concluded Treasure Island would not be a safe environment for the artwork and “we’re wanting the mural to come back to City College. Thank you for your concerns,we heard them.”
Chancellor David Martin later wrote in his report for the meeting on April 27, “currently, the plan is to store the mural in the old theater facility until the new performing arts complex is ready.” There has not yet been a date set as to when groundbreaking will begin for the new theater. The construction has been delayed for more than a decade as it was part of several bond measures approved by San Francisco residents in 2001, 2005 and again in 2020.
Rivera originally painted Pan American Unity in 1940 during the Golden Gate International Expo on Treasure Island. It was commissioned by City College, then named San Francisco Junior College, to be housed in the yet-to-be-built Pflueger Library. At the start of World War II, the library was stalled indefinitely. The artwork was stored on campus until 1961 when Milton Pflueger, the younger brother of the original architect, finished the Diego Rivera Theater. The mural was intended to be moved in 1995 to the Rosenthal Library, built with a four-story atrium specifically for the mural, but concerns of potential damage prevented its installation.
It remained in the Diego Rivera theater where it will return after the completion of the three-year loan at SFMOMA. Theater Arts Professor Patrick Toebe says he is happy about the decision to store it in the old theater. Despite a bit of flooding in the base of the theater during recent heavy rainstorms, he said that the area where the mural will be is elevated and experts have examined the space and determined it safe.