California college, museum battle over moving massive 'Pan American Unity' mural

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and City College of San Francisco have filed dueling lawsuits over who will move the massive piece back to the college. Image by mliu92/Wikimedia Commons

Nov. 18 (UPI) -- Two public institutions -- an art museum and a community college -- are facing dueling lawsuits over who will pay to move a massive Diego Rivera fresco.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art claimed in an October lawsuit that City College of San Francisco hasn't paid its share to move the 30-ton mural, colloquially known as Pan American Unity, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. City College countersued Friday, saying the museum mismanaged its finances so it can't afford to send the piece back.

The he-said, she-said sets the stage for a court battle while the work remains stuck in limbo, college Board of Trustees President Alan Wong said.

"We were thrilled to partner with the SFMOMA to share the mural with the world. Our partnership had an agreed upon multi-million dollar budget for them to take care of and return the mural we loaned," he said.

"Now they haven't returned the mural by the agreed-upon deadline, exceeded the budget and want money meant for our school buildings to foot the bill. We are, therefore, deeply disappointed that we had no choice but to file a counterclaim in response to the museum's lawsuit against the college. We look forward to resolving this dispute and returning this national art treasure to its rightful home."

The standoff began after the school loaned the work -- officially called Unión de la Expresión Artística del Norte y Sur de este Continente -- to the museum in 2019 while the school performed building renovations.

According to court documents, the agreement states the museum was to budget nearly $4 million, which included $1 million dedicated to return the piece by Sept. 1. Any deadline changes were required to be mutually approved.

The school claims the museum mismanaged its finances and never set aside funds to return the piece. Instead, the museum allegedly changed the terms of the initial agreement without approval and pursued litigation, the school said.

"SFMOMA also suggested the college tap into its $181.3 million in San Francisco taxpayer bond funds, which can only be used for the construction of new educational facilities, to compensate for the world-renowned museum's financial mismanagement," the school said.

The mural is currently in storage at the museum but is slated to be displayed in the college's new Performing Arts Pavilion in 2026. The piece, which spans 1,600 feet, was completed in 1940 and features 10 panels depicting the past, present and future. It also includes three self-portraits and a portrait of artist Frida Kahlo, his wife.