San Francisco Art Institute Suspends Enrollment, Plans Layoffs

SFAI's North Beach campus courtyard. (Courtesy of SFAI)

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the school’s current plans. An earlier version stated the school would cease operations after May’s graduation and planned to lay off all faculty and staff.

In an email dated Monday, March 23, San Francisco Art Institute president Gordon Knox and board of trustees chair Pam Rorke Levy announced the nearly 150-year-old art school would not enroll a new class for fall 2020, casting doubt on the future of SFAI without a strategic partnership from a larger institution.

Citing financial unsustainability and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the email, titled simply “Update,” details plans to prepare the school’s faculty and staff for layoffs at the end of the spring semester. It also mentions steps SFAI will take to help current students continue their educations “as seamlessly as possible” at other institutions.

SFAI had been “aggressively pursuing” alternatives to closure, including formal negotiations to merge with larger Bay Area schools. Arts community members aware of these negotiations speculated that one of those schools was the University of San Francisco, the private Jesuit university just a few miles away. The letter explains that merger talks stalled in the past week due to the coronavirus pandemic, as the potential partner institutions turned their attention to their own communities’ immediate needs.

“As a result, SFAI’s leadership has no clear path to admit a class of new students for the fall of 2020,” the letter reads. “Given our current financial situation, and what we expect to be a precipitous decline in enrollment due to the pandemic, we are now considering the suspension of our regular courses and degree programs starting immediately after graduation in May of this year.”

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While parts of the message leave open the possibility of resumed classes for ongoing students in the summer and fall of 2020, a member of the SFAI community said staff are receiving WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act notices, which are required by law 60 days before a potential mass layoff.

Graduating BFA, MFA, and MA students will receive their degrees in May as scheduled, but students who were planning to continue at SFAI in the fall of 2020 are encouraged to “pursue placement at another school.” The timing of this announcement is problematic; most schools accept applications only through early January, with decisions sent out in March and April. The letter refers to this situation as “a formidable timing challenge.”

SFAI closed their campus on Friday, March 13, one day in advance of the school’s scheduled spring break, to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Graduating students’ BFA and MFA shows have been canceled and the remainder of the semester, which starts up again on March 30, will take place online, a unique challenge for studio courses.

“In our long history, SFAI has survived countless calamitous events,” the letter closes. “While we remain hopeful there is a strategic partnership that will allow this commitment to continue, we are realistic that this will not happen any time soon in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic.”