City College’s Priceless Diego Rivera Fresco Rides Off to SFMOMA

Truck used for delivering City College of San Francisco "Pan American Unity" fresco to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Image courtesy of @shabbyfrisco

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The priceless and expansive fresco that has graced City College of San Francisco’s modest theater is moving out.

Huge panels of Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity, a fresco created in 1940 for the Golden Gate International Exposition, have been carefully driven to the South of Market neighborhood for a free and publicly accessible exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

By the end of this weekend, four of the 10 panels will have been carefully delivered by truck in the middle of the night to the arts institution, according to a City College official.

“They’re looking to have four panels at the SFMOMA: two uppers and two lowers,” Associate Vice Chancellor of Construction and Planning Alberto Vasquez told a committee of the college’s Board of Trustees on Thursday, May 13. “The first ones were a little bit challenging. They were built into the walls, and they were tightened up. They’re kind of squeezed into the wall.”

All of the panels will be moved to SFMOMA by the end of June, and the exhibition will start in July, according to Vasquez.

The panels must be slowly driven on surface streets to avoid potholes that could be damaging and in the middle of the night because of the size, according to Vasquez.

The college struck a deal to lend the artwork to SFMOMA for two years while the new Diego Rivera Theater building was being constructed on the west side of Ocean Campus. The COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the timeline for the exhibition while the college has struggled to undertake the new theater project. [Disclosure: This reporter occasionally teaches at the college.]

Vasquez said he has inquired about how long SFMOMA intends to display the Rivera fresco given that the pandemic has upended the original timeline while also making plans for how the college will reinstall it on campus.

“It’d be better for us if they can hold it,” Vasquez added.

Storing the art work would be costly because of the specific conditions it requires. The art work is appraised at $50 million.

In 1962, the fresco’s panels were cantilevered to fit into the theater’s lobby after spending over two decades in storage. The work of art was intended for the college’s library to be designed by Timothy Pflueger, architect of the college’s first building, now known as Science Hall, and personal friend of Rivera and Rivera’s partner, the artist Frida Kahlo.