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The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) has received a $200,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the conservation of Diego Rivera’s mural The Making of a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City (1931). The university had previously considered selling the work amid financial hardship that was exacerbated by the pandemic, appraising the piece at $50m.

William Gerstle, the then-president of the SFAI, commissioned Rivera to create the work for $2,500, and worked to secure a visa for Rivera and Frida Kahlo, a challenge due to Rivera’s status as an active member of the Communist Party in Mexico.

The fresco was made during the artist’s first visit to the US, and like many of his works shows a flatly-painted scene mixing themes related to art and labour and elevating the status of industrial workers. Rivera said the piece seemed to “express exactly the objective situation which produced it and to contain, technically, all the possibilities of mural painting”.

Diego Rivera,The Making of a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City (1931).

The fresco has remained in excellent condition since it was painted, as conservation and restoration has been ongoing since at least the 1960s, according to archival documents. Several condition reports were completed in 2020 and 2021, when the university considered deaccessioning the work.

There are recommendations to investigate improved lighting and climate control, but the grant will primarily support the first phase of an initiative encompassing public programmes and the digitisation of archival collections related to the fresco.

Some records that will be digitised include blueprints of the scaffolding used to complete the work, documents on Rivera’s other commissions in San Francisco—like the celebrated Pan American Unity (1940) now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—and video recordings of past conservations efforts involving muralists who had worked directly with Rivera.

“While these and many other related records have been consulted by scholars, curators and conservators, they have never been as findable or accessible as their historical value deserves,” SFAI staff tell The Art Newspaper in a joint statement.

The project is being overseen by the art historian Zoya Kocur, who has been appointed the manager of the Diego Rivera Fresco Programme. Kocur has previously led education programmes at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the New Museum in New York.

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