For the last few weeks of the summer, a group of conservators worked on the preservation of “Pan American Unity,” a mural completed in 1940 by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, now on view at SFMOMA.

Rivera completed the mural in 1940 for the Golden Gate International Exposition held in Treasure Island. Watching Rivera—perhaps the most famous living artist of his time—working on the mural was the headlining event of “Art in Action,” an exhibit where fairgoes could watch artists create their work. From the start, he designed it as several panels that can be separated and transported, which made it possible to move it from the Island to City College of San Francisco, where it lived many years as part of the Diego Rivera theater. But from now and through the summer of 2023, it will be on view at the SFMOMA, completely free to the public, while CCSF renovates the theater named after the artist. 

The complicated process to dismantle and move the 30-ton fresco took four years to plan and involved engineers, art historians, handlers and riggers, plus seven trips between CCSF and SFMOMA, at 5 miles per hour just before dawn to avoid the city’s daytime traffic. 

Once in its new temporary home a team of conservators fixed details such as splatter spots from construction projects taking place near the mural, or scratches and other damage acquired throughout its 80 year history. Besides working on the superficial spots on the mural, conservators also assisted to ensure its stability during the transportation process.

Lead conservator Kiernan Graves said that all treatment decisions were made with the goal of keeping the mural “transportable and preserved for thousands of years.”

While SFMOMA wanted to bring conservators from Mexico (and echo the theme of unity in the mural), this was not possible due to the pandemic. However, in 2019, Mexican conservators and engineers from UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) played a crucial role in helping SFMOMA plan the move that took place this year.

The mural is rich in historic references, symbolism and tributes to many artists, scientists and works of art from the 1930s. “Pan American Unity” is now on view for free at SFMOMA’s Roberts Family Gallery on Floor 1. The museum is open Mondays 10am- 5pm, Thursdays 1pm-8pm, and Friday through Sunday 10am-5pm