San Francisco Art Institute Falters, Seeks New Path Forward

After major cuts and criticism from students, some thought SFAI was history, but the 149-year-old art school isn’t giving up.

Just before 3:30 p.m. on Monday, March 23, Gordon Knox, the San Francisco Art Institute’s president, and Pam Rorke Levy, the chair of its Board of Trustees, sent a nine-paragraph email, with a one-word subject line of “Update,” to the school’s students, faculty, staff, and supporters that said the institution was “considering the suspension of our regular courses and degree programs starting immediately after graduation in May of this year.”

The San Francisco Art Institute has operated for 149 years, and the news that it might soon cease to be a degree-granting institution — and soon cease to be the kind of school that attracted a who’s who of faculty (including Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Mark Rothko, David Park, and Joan Brown) and a roster of students who went on to become art-world stars (including Annie Leibovitz, Karen Finely, and Kehinde Wiley) — was one of the most stunning announcements to come out of the San Francisco art world of late. 

The seven weeks since that fateful email have been equally tumultuous. The school’s faculty received lay-off notices. Students who were supposed to continue their classes in the fall were told to find another school. And some of these faculty and students — angry at the school’s sudden change of fortunes — accused the administration of incompetence, saying that the school overreached when it went millions of dollars in debt in 2015 to open a campus extension at Fort Mason, and that SFAI’s budget woes, which prompted the March 23 announcement, were partly the school’s own fault.

The school, which has $19 million in debt and annually runs a budget deficit, had 700 students in 2015. Now only about 300 are enrolled. The San Francisco Art Institute’s dwindling student body — a reality that colleges around the United States are also facing — has been exacerbated by San Francisco’s high cost of living, says Levy, who defends the school’s Fort Mason expansion as a then-necessary step to evolve the school’s programs and give graduate students an affordable, nearby space for studios instead of having them trek across San Francisco to 3rd Street, where it runs its 3rd Street Studios Program.

San Francisco Art Institute’s Fort Mason Center campus. (Photo courtesy of SFAI)

“Maybe it would have been better not to get Fort Mason,” Levy tells SF Weekly. “But when I think about the alternative, I don’t know that that would have been right either. I think that might have had an even more dramatic effect on enrollment long term.”

Levy and chief operating officer Mark Kushner tell SF Weekly that the San Francisco Art Institute may still continue its longtime role as a degree-granting institution. They also say that a public outpouring of support has raised more than $4 million in the past seven weeks, and that Wiley — whose paintings regularly sell for more than $250,000 — has offered to donate five artworks over five years to raise scholarship money for the school’s most needy students. Future donations and upcoming benefit auctions of artwork by Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Mapplethorpe, and other artists will also bolster the institution’s coffers, and Levy says the school is still considering selling its most valuable possession: A 1931 mural valued at $50 million, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, that acclaimed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted inside the institution’s longtime Russian Hill campus on Chestnut Street. 

“We’d be remiss not to consider it,” Levy says. “Any small institution that has a valuable artwork is always thinking: ‘What would that work buy in terms of generations of students?’” 

Levy and Kushner say they’re also considering other options, including turning the San Francisco Art Institute into a school that offers adult-education classes, online classes for students of all ages, or residency-like seminars where artists like Wiley would come in and teach. In other words, the San Francisco Art Institute may reinvent itself as an institution that combines popular art classes for adults (like classes offered by UC Berkeley Extension, Stanford Continuing Studies, and other educational outlets) with both online and in-person classes for students who are interested in a more academic experience. 

“It might be that it makes more sense for us to be an artist-in-residency program where we invite Kehinde back and he teaches a master class,” Levy says. “There are all kinds of different permutations that we could look at. We could activate it as a social space, too, that is part of the community. … We teach studio hands-on art in a very personalized environment — a very one-on-one kind of thing. What can that be for other platforms? For other audiences? For adult learners? I take a class every quarter at Stanford Continuing Education, and I’ll probably do that for the rest of my life. Why not bring people to the San Francisco Art Institute to keep taking art classes for the rest of their lives? So really developing those other markets and population in a way that we really haven’t over the last 10-20 years.”

“The downside of being a degree program,” Levy adds, “is that it tends to be insular. This is an opportunity to open it up and enliven it in a way that it was for most of its history.”

From 1871 to 1954, the San Francisco Art Institute didn’t offer degrees, Kushner points out, saying that: “It was an art association. It was for artists. The school has lots of permutations historically and it could be lots of different things in the future. We’re trying to reimagine what does a financially sustainable art college in the 21st century look like? How do we do this for the next 150 years? How do we remain sustainable so we don’t have this annual pain of financial woes?” 

One scenario has the school merging with another institution — not another arts campus but one with a broader educational mandate, like a private university — that could let the San Francisco Art Institute continue its degree-granting programs. The school was close to announcing such a merger a few months ago but those talks collapsed amidst the faltering economy, which has been battered by COVID-19-related shelter-in-place shutdowns. Levy says the institute’s administration had no choice but to end the contracts of its some 150 faculty and staff, and to tell students who’d be returning in the fall to find other schools — even though there’s still a chance the San Francisco Art Institute will, at the last minute, retain its degree-granting programs in the fall. 

Diego Rivera Mural at SFAI’s Chestnut Street Campus. (Photo courtesy of SFAI)

“It’s our intent to offer degree classes,” Kushner says, “but we’re working with the accreditation and other people to understand what that means. So that’s a ‘TBD.’ We’re certainly offering art classes and art instruction. We have a number of professors who want to teach next year, and one of the positions is endowed. We’re looking into, ‘What is a degree program? And what is an accredited program?’ So that’s also still up in the air. … It’s my intent to offer degree programs, but that remains to be seen.”  

Regardless, some students and faculty say the administration’s past and current actions reflect a shortsighted view of the school’s mission — and that even since the March 23 announcement, the school has bungled its outreach to students and faculty, creating a level of mistrust that they say was unnecessary and that has tamped down any good will for the institution. One example, they say: To raise money, the administration is trying to rent out the school’s 67,000-square-feet Fort Mason space, where many graduate students still have their artwork — but, they say, the administration has ignored their requests for timely updates about the possible rental, and that such a rental might force students during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders to retrieve their belongings. Many students would prefer to keep their artwork at Fort Mason during the period of mandatory shelter-in-place. 

“Our issue is that the school seems to be choosing this one avenue of funding, which will actually harm its own students by forcing us to move out in the middle of the pandemic,” says Evan Pettiglio, who completed an MFA in studio art this semester. “As opposed to choosing other routes to generate funding that don’t require more than 100 students to come maybe within a week of each other to move out a massive amount of belongings from the building, which could put all of us at risk.” 

Students also say the administration mishandled an opportunity to help non-graduating students transfer to other schools. “They told us from the get-go, ‘You guys should just transfer out to different schools.’ But the administration gave us little to no help or direction in terms of making that transition more smoothly,” says Cardamom Blue, who’s one of three SFAI students who’ve formed a protest group called the Extra Action Revolutionary Group, which says the school’s administration should be held more accountable for SFAI’s financial failings and should be more transparent with students, faculty, and staff about how it’s planning to rectify the school’s finances and move forward with classes. 

“There was no excuse for them not to jump on that and help out their student body,” Blue says.

Blue, who this semester earned an undergraduate degree at SFAI, is giving a video commencement address to the school’s virtual graduation that’s scheduled for May 16. A few weeks ago, Blue and the group’s other members flung a protest banner across the closed doors of SFAI’s Chestnut Street campus that read, “Here lies San Francisco’s Top Art School, RIP, 1871-2020.” Blue and the group’s other members say that the school’s security guards have been told to immediately call police if protestors appear anywhere inside the campus – but they say the group’s actions have galvanized classmates who left the school in frustration soon after the March 23 announcement. 

“A lot of (SFAI) students who’ve been displaced outside of the Bay Area are happy and thankful we’re doing something,” says Liz Hafey, a first-year graduate student who’s another member of the Extra Action Revolutionary Group and says she is transferring to another school. “So we’re representing a large amount of our community.” 

Kal Spelletich, a longtime artist and adjunct instructor who teaches popular courses in robotics, hacking, and art and technology at the San Francisco Art Institute and who supports the group, says the administration is making its plans without seriously consulting the school’s instructors — though Kushner denies that claim. 

“They hold these quasi-town halls asking for opinions but more or less telling us what they’re going to do — or not exactly telling us — and pretending that we have a voice in this,” says Spelletich, who’s known for his early Burning Man art and makes about $5,000 a semester to teach a single class. “I’ve been involved in a lot of actions in city politics and it’s the same thing — they have a decision-making process that you’re not included in. I have a proposal out that I hope Kushner will see; we’re floating it around. I’m tapped into the robot art technology scene. Why don’t we turn this into a cutting-edge art and technology school, flip the whole script, have faculty call more shots, be innovative with education, and teach classes this summer? We’re handing them these killer ideas, but we’re getting no response. At least not yet. And people are afraid to talk. And here I am — biting the hand that never fed me very well.”

In the days after the college’s March 23 announcement, many people thought the San Francisco Art Institute was close to shutting down permanently, and multiple media reports broadcast that possibility. Levy and Kushner say that a complete shutdown was never considered. But how the school reinvents itself, and how that reinvention affects current faculty and even the school’s reputation, remains to be seen. And this lingering uncertainty has, for now, cast a pall over the school — even if the San Francisco Art Institute retains its degree-giving programs for both undergraduate and graduate students, and even as Levy, Kushner, and other SFAI administrators say they are doing their best to save the school’s future. Even students who have stuck around and are participating in this month’s virtual graduation are having a tough time celebrating. Instructors are also feeling ostracized. 

“There’s no trust — that’s been broken,” says Spelletich, who has taught at the school for 13 years. “Essentially all the faculty has been fired. My contract is up next Wednesday (May 13). They’ve told us our contracts are null and void, or some other terminology — but we’re all out of work. I don’t have a job. I’m going to be 60 this year. Who the hell is hiring some 60-year-old weirdo artist in the midst of a collapsing society? I’m pissed.” 

(Kushner says he doesn’t know “exactly when and how many” people will be laid off, but that “we’ll have to eventually lay off faculty and staff.”)

Blue, who is pre-recording the May 16 commencement address, says the address will be positive — despite what Blue calls the school’s attempts to minimize potential student protests. Even with prerecorded parts, the virtual graduation on May 16 is scheduled to be live-streamed on YouTube.

“If we did want to say anything about the school or the administration, we can’t,” Blue says. “They’re making sure that’s completely censored. … They want to make sure there’s nothing averse in my speech, I think. And, in fact, I didn’t address any of this really. I dropped one line about COVID-19 at the very end of it. And I did that because I’m looking at this graduation as a time to celebrate. And I wanted to focus on that, as opposed to all this negativity.”

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