Arts and Entertainment

Diego Rivera’s Priceless ‘Pan American Unity’ a Neighborhood Treasure for 55 Years

Mabel Jimenez views “Pan American Unity” on Sept. 24. PHOTOGRAPH BY NATASHA DANGOND/INGLESIDE-EXCELSIOR LIGHT

In 1961, Diego Rivera’s expansive mural “Pan American Unity” — his final large work— was moved to the lobby of City College of San Francisco’s City Theatre on Ocean Campus. The beautiful masterwork has been accessible to students, faculty, staff as well as tourists and visiting scholars in the know. The stunning mural has been the southern side of San Francisco’s best kept secret.

“From day one, it was destined for City College,” said William Maynez, a retired faculty member and Diego Rivera Mural Project historian. “But it wasn’t destined to be in the theater.”

Rivera, considered Mexico’s greatest modern artist, combined images of traditional Latin American culture and history with American technology and his own socialist political views in the sweeping piece.

In addition to the historians, curators and tourists who regularly visit, Maynez envisions a more visible, public setting for “Pan American Unity”, accessible to everyday San Franciscans and the students who pass through campus every day.

“Unión de la Expresión Artistica del Norte y Sur de este Continente” — The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent — was commissioned in 1940 by the organizers of the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. It took six months for Rivera to complete. After the fair’s run, it was set to be showcased and visible to the public in a new City College library building.

But construction of the library halted due to World War II, and the fresco languished in storage until 1961, when it moved to its current home in the Diego Rivera Theater lobby, a small space where the mural cannot all be looked upon at once. It’s been well cared for — fine art appraiser Jeremy Stone deemed its condition “excellent” with only slight chips and paint loss — but the theater was never meant to be its permanent home.

“The curved surface in that building was the only way to accommodate it,” Maynez said.

Plans for City College’s long-delayed performing arts center include “Pan American Unity” as the anchor and focal point of the new building, fulfilling Rivera’s original vision of public art for public consumption, as well as highlighting the school’s impressive — and sometimes overlooked — possession.

In fact, Rivera benefactor and friend Timothy Pflueger, the architect of City College’s Science Hall as well as Ingleside’s Art Deco movie palace El Rey, is pictured in “Pan American Unity” holding the plans for the college’s library in which the mural was supposed to be kept. The outbreak of World War II dashed those plans as well as the other two thirds of Pan American Unity.

“The mural should be leveraged into attracting underrepresented populations to City College,” Maynez said. “So they have a chance to see what a world-class work of art by a world-class Mexican artist looks like.”

For now, the college has docents monitor and assist visitors for 36 hours a week up from 11 just a few years ago.

Extra security measures are being added to protect it.

The work is undergoing an appraisal so it can be insured. At press time, it is unclear whether it had ever been insured.

“It’s a priceless piece of art cherished by our students and faculty,” Vice Chancellor of Administration and Finance Ron Gerhard said.

Alexander Mullaney contributed reporting. This article has been updated. 

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