LETTER OF APPEAL TO THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES AT SFAI

December 15, 2020

As SFAI prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary, we, the Reimagine Committee, are tasked by the SFAI Board of Trustees to recommend a comprehensive vision that renews our ability and commitment to prepare emerging artists to meet the increasing challenges they will undoubtedly face in the future. The Reimagine Committee is organized to include the wider SFAI community, experts in related fields, and most importantly a wide range of alumni across the world. As promised, the Reimagine Committee has developed a comprehensive and innovative proposal for the relaunching of SFAI by: setting aside the assumptions that have driven our institutional decision making for the last several decades; taking a fresh look at our mission and values; producing and analyzing a comprehensive set of financial models; proposing a dynamic system of pedagogy; refocusing our efforts to champion racial, social, and environmental justice; and establishing a non-hierarchical structure of governance.

We appreciate the board dialoguing with us and taking a first step in extending the conversation to the community about our joint responsibilities at SFAI, like the Diego Rivera Mural.

 In alignment with our models for re-imagining SFAI, the Reimagine Committee strongly disagrees with the idea that the sale and removal of the Diego Rivera mural will save SFAI. Contrary to our knowledge and recommendations, such actions by the SFAI Board of Trustees will cause irreparable harm to the ethical, moral, cultural, social, political, civic, domestic, and international standing of our institution. We are confident that SFAI will cease to exist as the public memory we all wish to be our legacy should the institution fail to understand the power of art in this particular context and matter. Considering all that we have imagined together as a Re-imagine Committee, we feel it is our duty to advise the SFAI Board of Trustees in good faith and partnership. We present this letter to you with the intention to collaboratively promote the success of our beloved institution. Together we must seek to better maintain Rivera’s scaffold, and jointly use it for depicting a more desirable future for SFAI and citizens of San Francisco.

ETHICAL REASONS

  • Place: We urge the Board to move away from its ideas to sell and remove the Diego Rivera mural to a private donor since it is a work in which place matters.​​​​​

  • To pursue such a sale constitutes and evokes forced removal, and the ongoing displacement, erasure and ghosting of BIPOC narratives and histories. As art institutions, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, work diligently to acquire works by people of color, SFAI is considering the sale and removal of it’s mural by Diego Rivera.

  • Unless proven otherwise, nowhere within the study of Diego Rivera’s work is there evidence that his portable mural technology signifies his intention or permission for the mural to be relocated away from the San Francisco Art Institute or the City of San Francisco.

  • Labor: The implications of SFAI’s proposal to sell the Diego Rivera Mural suggest that, at this moment, it must rely on the labor of an artist of color to lift it from its financial crisis. The labor, depicted in the mural by a Mexican Artist, leads us to reflect on what was once made public by the Chicano movement led by the late and honorable Cesar Chavez with regards to the U.S. exploitation of indigenous labor from south of the U.S. Mexico Border. For example, in light of a sale, the public may inquire about whether SFAI is offering a large number of scholarships to prospective students of color such as Dreamers in the State of California. Such a course of action can only be brokered with the assistance of large Latinx, Xicanx, and Hispanic organizations such as foundations, associations, and government entities.

 

  • Consultation: It is a colonial practice to assume that one individual speaks for or represents entire races of people. One individual––whether an artist, student, expert, or person of a particular cultural background––cannot speak for or represent entire races of people in justifying a large cultural decision. Any determinations concerning the stewardship of the mural can only be ethically accomplished through the involvement of powerful organizations that best represent the people whose heritages are embedded within the mural, and organized communities of the people themselves. In this case Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, Xicanx, and Indigenous Americans that are in relationship to the mural. Furthermore, the context of international relations between the United States and Mexico must be accounted for.

 

  • Commodification of culture: By selling the mural, SFAI would be commodifying and erasing a vital history of the institution. The power of mural art is derivative of the collective and co-determined, publicly-imbued, meanings. Removing such an iconic generator of imagination from SFAI without public input constitutes another example of disaster capitalism at the expense of people of color.

 

  • ​The mural is the property of the People at large, including but not limited to the people of The United States, Mexico, and the city of San Francisco. Removing the mural from its original context is equal to defacing a historical asset, and while the board may not view its protection in place as a legal obligation, any plan to remove or sell it should be approved by diverse publics at large.

  • Impact for SFAI: Selling the mural places people of color who are adamantly opposed to its sale in a vulnerable political position. Internally speaking, the conversation about the mural has to engage the shared governance bylaws at SFAI. From the students’ perspective, having the opportunity to share their work with Diego Rivera is unmatchable.

 

  • Theme: Diego Rivera’s gesture at SFAI is in opposition to the nature of its sale. A communist Mexican artist made a painting about the building of San Francisco, while the SFAI Board of Trustees may authorize its sale to be removed and relocated to another city. To destroy the place-specific semiotic power (or the site-specific meaning) of the mural is akin to reducing it to a necrotized anthropological artifact (a dead cultural object whose meaning is no longer determined by practice, but through the colonial gaze of western science, art theory, and tourism). Currently the Diego Rivera Mural is one of SFAI’ s most valuable teaching tools. It’s alive because it is practiced in pedagogy for the transference, recovery, and creation of knowledge within an environment of praxis.

CURRENT FINANCIAL FRAMEWORK

  • It is our understanding that the board has been proceeding without a multi-year financial forecast. We also note that the board lacks a treasurer, in violation of California non-profit law, and does not have a standing finance committee, which is a violation of its own bylaws. We urge the board not to make weighty financial decisions without more careful research into their likely implications.

  • Every financial model we have seen for SFAI includes millions of dollars of deficit spending every year. Our financial model derived from current financial data anticipates on the order of $20 million in deficit spending over the next four years, even with significant enrollment growth. This deficit spending does not include buying back our rights to Chestnut Street, and is in addition to any debt service obligations the board might take on in the meantime.

 

  • Every plan we have heard for SFAI operations involves paying for those operating deficits by selling or borrowing against the mural. When this multi-million dollar line of credit comes due in 2-3 years it seemingly would trigger the sale of the mural for repayment, so it is not clear there is a meaningful difference between selling the mural now or using it as the basis for a loan.

 

  • According to Reimagine team financial forecasts, a sale of the mural for $50 million dollars would not guarantee SFAI’s financial future. Between debt obligations, operating deficits, and infrastructure spending needs, SFAI would likely spend all of that money on the Chestnut Street real estate. The best case scenario we can see is that SFAI will be unable to cut tuition, raise salaries, improve acceptance rates, or invest in new physical or intellectual infrastructure.

  • The worst case scenario we can see is that SFAI would sell the mural and then run out of money before it can get to break-even operations. We ask whether SFAI wants to begin a headlong multi-year drive towards enrollment of 600 knowing that it might fail on the way there. Will our recruiting materials include a warning that we might fail to make payroll before students are able to complete their degree program?

  • We are not prepared to assume that SFAI would realize $50 million from a sale of the mural. It is our understanding that no prospective buyer has committed to a price, and we don’t feel that we understand what SFAI’s costs might be associated with the sale, such as legal representation, financial fees, permitting requirements, PR expenses, and the cost of removal and delivery.

  • We have no reason to believe that a capital campaign would be able to bring in substantial funding to offset these financial challenges. We urge the board to base its fundraising expectations on SFAI’s track record over the past five years.

  • We have heard mentioned that a benefactor might wish to endow the mural in place. If this is a possibility, it bears further discussion. We caution the board not to assume that a line of credit secured against the mural will be paid off by such a donor. Furthermore, before the board imagines new artwork or programs that could be funded in this way, it must take a realistic look at the existing expenses it will have to cover with those funds.

PRACTICAL REASONS

  • Representative cultural foundations and organizations may suggest that any proceeds earned from the mural should include a plan to allocate a largely significant portion of those funds to support the community in which this work originates, namely Lantinx and Indigenious communities. The goal of leveraging the labor and vision of a Mexican artist to save a historically and currently white institution does not serve our communal goals to bring anti-racist practices to the operations across the institution.

 

  • The sale could potentially damage the reputation of SFAI as having committed an unforgivable act. This damage may be reflected throughout the art world, and with publics throughout San Francisco, the State of California, the United States, and Mexico.

 

  • The sale of the mural is a short term financial situation and does not guarantee the long term engagement of the Mexican and Latinx Indigenious stewardship of the mural. The root of the problem is the school’s unsustainable business model and underdeveloped fundraising pathways.

 

  • SFAI did not shut down in March 2020. We are still standing, and there are other alternatives that can be explored financially before relying on what some might perceive the “easy way out.” There are numerous alternatives that have not yet been explored or exhausted, including expanding online public ed; new degrees that may generate revenue; external sponsorships; partnerships with other institutions; making the Chestnut campus more of a cultural and tourist destination.

  • The SFAI Board has not exhausted all avenues to funding the mural by consulting with the Bay Area art community and/or consulting with city and state officials to help find or contribute funds to keep the mural in place. It would be a profound loss if the Bay Area art community did not prioritize securing the mural. Losing our iconic fresco would diminish the significance of San Francisco’s culture locally to globally.

  • A decision like this shouldn’t be made before the Reimagine Committee has shared their report. A decision like this is harmful to the reimagine process. While we are all clear that time is short, and finances are pressing, this action can be detrimental to the validity of SFAI to exist as a cultural institution.

Signed by the Reimagine Committee:

Tom Loughlin

Karen Topakian

Cristóbal Martínez

Lindsey White

Matt Borruso

Jennifer Locke

Orit Ben-Shitrit

Irene Carvajal

Ana Suek

Zeina Barakeh

Kat Trataris

Kavenamua Hambira

Oscar Lopez Guerrero

Annie Reiniger

Emily Reynolds

Rye Purvis