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Neglected Treasures 

A famed Mexican artist painted six murals for the 1939 World's Fair in S.F. One famously disappeared. The others have practically been ignored.

Wednesday, Jan 16 2008
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Others offer a similar view. "My guess is that the mural most likely wound up in someone's private collection," says Belcher, the art appraiser. "Considering the time that's passed, it isn't far-fetched to think it could even be in someone's basement."

New York fine-art dealer Mary-Anne Martin, who opened the Latin American department at Sotheby's in the 1970s and has long admired Covarrubias' work, agrees. "It was probably stolen," she says, "which is not to say that it will never surface." She cites a painting by Mexican master Rufino Tamayo that was stolen in Houston in 1987 and reappeared in 2006 at auction in New York. "These things happen. We can only hope."

"It's a mystery that may never be solved, but unless or until it is, people will probably never stop wondering about it," Williams says.

Covarrubias' admirers could be forgiven for wondering why such acclaimed works should find themselves orphaned in a city that prides itself on its public art.

That isn't to suggest that there hasn't been some interest in displaying the murals locally. Both before and after they were removed from the Ferry Building and warehoused on the island, several institutions have inquired about them. The Mexican Museum, the recipient of much of Covarrubias' folk art collection in 1976, has long coveted the paintings. But it has no place to display them. Its tiny Fort Mason facility is currently closed to the public, and its dream of a new museum in SOMA is stalled for lack of funds.

The proposed Museum of San Francisco and the Bay Area, slated to move into the historic Old Mint building South of Market following renovation, has expressed interest, until determining that the paintings "wouldn't really work" because of their size, says Charles Fracchia, museum founder and president emeritus. The shuttered Treasure Island Museum, whose collection is also in storage, faces an uncertain future until long-range redevelopment plans for the island are decided.

Before San Francisco International Airport was renovated, Williams and others lobbied the Arts Commission to house the murals there, but were rebuffed, she says. "There seemed to be very little interest" on the part of the commission, she says: "The explanation we heard was that the space was already spoken for."

One institution whose interest hasn't wavered is City College of San Francisco, which wants the murals for the expansive glass-enclosed lobby in its planned new $110 million performing arts center, for which it hopes to break ground next year. The college already houses a much-celebrated Diego Rivera mural also executed for the 1939 World's Fair. "Let me say, with an exclamation point and underscore, that we have the highest level of interest in providing a home for the Covarrubias maps," says Philip Day, the college's chancellor.

For the college to get its wish, however, would require the murals' owner, the Treasure Island Development Authority, to let them go — something the agency, despite having nowhere to show them, has in the past been unwilling to discuss.

The college made overtures to Treasure Island officials in 2002 and was told "thanks but no thanks," Day says. Asked about the matter, the island's operations director, Mirian Saez, who was hired in 2006, says she's willing to talk with the college, but isn't ready to make commitments.

Meanwhile, at the end of January, when the Mexico run ends, the murals will be crated and returned to San Francisco, where — in the absence of anywhere suitable to showcase them — they are once again destined to be put away.

"That's a matter for San Francisco officials to decide, but we certainly do not want to see them remain in storage," says Jonathan Chait, a cultural affairs officer with the Mexican consulate here, which helped negotiate the Mexico tour.

TIDA officials say that in the near term, they would like to make an arrangement with the de Young Museum — which is believed to have no interest in the murals for its permanent collection primarily because of their size — for a temporary exhibition.

But de Young curator Kathleen Berrin says that even if the museum were to give the green light for an exhibition, it would likely be three to five years before it happened.

"They're wonderful pieces and certainly merit our attention," says Berrin, who admits to having had "tears in my eyes" upon visiting the murals in Mexico. "But what are we to do?"

As Saez of TIDA puts it, the status of the murals "could probably best be described as 'to be determined.'" And until that changes, agency cultural resources coordinator Peter Summerville says they will be going back to a familiar place where the public can't see them: storage.

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Ron Russell

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