Unity Mural Gets New Life
San Francisco City College Discovers New Lessons in Valuable Campus Mural
SAN FRANCISCO — College officials say they can’t believe it was at one point almost forgotten, an important work of art packed away in crates and placed in some out-of-the-way nook or cranny here at one of the nation’s largest two-year institutions.
What a difference a few years makes. Today, officials at San Francisco City College (SFCC) are not only celebrating the history of their rediscovered artistic jewel called the “Pan American Unity Mural” but they are attempting to integrate it into their campus and their curriculum.
Painted almost 60 years ago by internationally renowned artist Diego Rivera, the mural no longer is unknown and unseen. For the past 38 years it has been on display in a theater lobby on campus, but a traveling multimedia exhibition featuring reproductions from the mural is attracting new attention.
“It’s stunning to see. It’s really beautiful. And it’s an important work of art,” says Ann Zinn, a special assistant to Dr. Philip Day Jr., the college’s president. “It’s just amazing that we’ve had this all this time and almost didn’t even know it,”
The college over the past few months has been promoting the massive mural — painted in Rivera’s trademark big and bold style. At 22 feet 2 inches high and 73 feet 9 inches wide, the mural is roughly the size of an expressway billboard or a large movie screen. It is believed to be the largest contiguous space the artist painted in San Francisco. Seven of Rivera’s murals still exist in Mexico and four are in the United States.
Rivera, who died in 1957, is considered one of the 20th century’s modern art giants. As the century draws to a close, renewed interest in his work and that of other modernists has fueled interest in the SFCC mural.
“The whole modern art movement is being re-evaluated and Rivera’s work is coming to the forefront,” says Linda Downs, a Rivera scholar and curator of education at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Capitalizing on this trend, SFCC’s traveling multimedia exhibit about its Rivera mural made its debut last month when it went on display in the atrium of the new State building in the San Francisco Civic Center. The college also has launched a Web site, printed brochures, posters and two photographic reproductions of the mural, says Julia Bergman, a college librarian and chairwoman of the college’s works of art committee. Several City College professors are even working the mural into the curriculum.
“We are fortunate to have such an inspirational tool for teaching,” Bergman says. “The mural has infused a level of curriculum development around here that we haven’t had in a while. The place is jumping now with student involvement in the mural. It’s exciting.”
The Unity mural depicts a historical view of the cooperation between the people of the Americas, spanning from the Aztecs in Mexico to the industrial revolution in the United States. For that reason, it is subtitled “Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and South of this Continent,” Bergman says.
A Nearly Forgotten Gift
Given the level of interest in the mural at the college today, it is hard to believe the multimillion-dollar work of art was once forgotten. The 10-panel mural was stored in wooden crates for nearly 20 years after Rivera completed it.
According to the family archive of renowned San Francisco architect Timothy Flueger and other sources it was Flueger who convinced Rivera to paint the mural for free. The architect was designing the college’s campus while he was vice chairman of the fine arts committee for the Golden Gate International Exposition of the World Fair in 1940.
Rivera painted the mural as part of the fair’s Art in Action program and then donated it for display in a library Flueger had designed for the college, Bergman says. But a shortage of steel during World War II initially put library plans on hold. Later, other priorities delayed building the library until 1995. In the interim, Flueger and Rivera died.
College officials considered giving the mural away, but could never reach a consensus and eventually forgot about it. Flueger’s brother, Milton, later succeeded his brother as college architect and in 1957 resurrected the idea of displaying the mural in an alternate location.
By 1961, the mural was installed at its current location, in the lobby of the 400-seat Little Theater on the SFCC campus, Bergman says. Still, the theater’s small size limited the public’s access to the mural. College officials feuded in the late 1980s over moving it to the new library to improve accessibility, but again a consensus could not be reached.
The mural remained in the theater, but ideas about expanding its reach percolated. By the 1990s, college officials were integrating it into their educational mission, Bergman says.
Last summer, 110 faculty members (nearly 7 percent of those teaching on the campus) attended a three-hour workshop about the mural and 44 followed up by offering ideas for how to use the mural in assignments or for creating classes.
An auto mechanics instructor, for example, wants his students to view the vintage 1940s Ford motor and fuel pump, and a Ford assembly line depicted in the mural as part of their historical study of the automobile industry. An international advisory council that Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marin, chairs has collected other ideas for curricular uses of the mural.
College officials also have displayed a 6- by 10-foot photographic reproduction of the mural in a faculty dinning room and in other locations on this predominately Hispanic campus.
The travelling multimedia exhibit’s 10-panel reproduction of the mural is displayed around a computer that is stocked with pictures, music, interviews and the history of the mural; all presented in a bilingual format, Bergman says. It is designed as an outreach component for people off of the campus, teaching them about the mural and the man who created it.
College officials also have designed a poster that sells for $22.95, a brochure that sells for $3 and a Web site at <
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