The view from SFAI's  Chestnut Street campus, photographed by Ansel Adams, c. 1939. Courtesy of SFAI
The view from SFAI's Chestnut Street campus, photographed by Ansel Adams, c. 1939. (Courtesy of SFAI)

The San Francisco Art Institute Will Never Be What it Once Was

The San Francisco Art Institute Will Never Be What it Once Was

The question came from the cold, digital chat field of an online town hall meeting for San Francisco Art Institute students, but it had the force of indignation.

“Why would you waste freshmen’s time,” the student asked, “and make us motivated for no reason if you’re going to close?”

Channeling the confusion and disappointment of SFAI’s newly sheltered-at-home students, the question became a statement: “I don’t want to transfer to a new school. I love SFAI, no one can replace it.”

It was March 25, two days after SFAI president Gordon Knox and board chair Pam Rorke Levy issued a letter to students, staff, faculty and supporters announcing the 149-year-old art school would not enroll a new class in the fall. The letter said the school was “considering the suspension” of regular courses and degree programs after May. It foretold mass faculty and staff layoffs, and advised continuing students to “pursue placement at another school.”

Above all, the student wanted to know: Why haven’t you solved this issue before?

Knox began describing efforts to grow the school’s endowment. Then his video feed glitched, and his audio became garbled and indecipherable. Levy stepped in to talk about “ramped up” efforts to reconnect with former donors, find new ones and court SFAI’s illustrious alumni, name-dropping Kehinde Wiley and Annie Leibowitz.

The heart of the question was effectively sidestepped.

The tower and courtyard of SFAI's historic Chestnut Street campus. (Courtesy of SFAI)

More than anything else—the convoluted announcements, the long-winded attempts at clarification, the lack of any clear plan for the future—that question and its nonanswer sum up the current chaos at SFAI. A small school with an outsize reputation for producing fine artists, SFAI is near universally beloved by those who have attended it, taught at it or simply brushed up against its influence on the Bay Area art scene since 1871.

Of the dozen staff, faculty, students, alumni, board members and community members interviewed for this piece, nearly all of them used the word “love” in conjunction with the school. That love means everyone wants to see SFAI continue to exist. That love means decisions have been made over the years to preserve the reputation of the school while obscuring the truth of the matter: SFAI has been in crisis for a long time.

And it might be too late to fix it.

A Deal Too Good To Pass Up

SFAI’s long-term financial woes were widely known prior to March 23, but as many members of the arts community have since noted, the school always managed to right itself in crises past. It was hard to know which particular hard time might actually, finally spell the end of the institution.

Depending on who you talk to, SFAI’s problems stem from different causes. Some blame the first dot-com bust. Others, many others, point to the school’s expansion into Fort Mason. Still others blame the rise in San Francisco’s cost of living, or the difficulty of running a small school without an enormous endowment.

The thing is: everyone is right. The groundwork for SFAI’s collapse was laid years before the coronavirus pandemic derailed the school’s latest plan for survival: a now-stalled merger with a larger school. And while it may be hard to run a tiny private college in one of the most expensive cities in the world, it’s even harder to do so with $19 million in debt, loans SFAI repays in installments of approximately $102,000 a month.

Which brings us to Fort Mason.

San Francisco Art Institute's Fort Mason Center campus on Pier 2. (Courtesy of SFAI)

The school’s 60-year lease at Fort Mason, a deal negotiated in 2015 by SFAI’s board and then-president Charles Desmarais (now art critic at the San Francisco Chronicle), relocated graduate studios, classrooms and exhibition space from San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood to a pier at the former military site in the Marina. Instead of a cross-town commute, the new space would be only a mile away from the school’s historic Chestnut Street campus.

According to Levy, the Fort Mason deal was too good to pass up. “The federal government paid the lion’s share of the seismic and infrastructure build-out of that pier,” she said in a March 24 phone interview. “All we had to do was build out the classrooms and space.” SFAI’s lease on the 67,000-square-foot building cost the school about $750,000 a year, well below market rate for Bay-front property.

What’s more, SFAI was growing. Enrollment was up to 699 students (undergraduate and graduate combined) during the 2014–15 school year, and the Dogpatch studios were completely full.

Levy says SFAI initially attempted to fund construction costs through a capital campaign, but raised only about $7 million of a hoped-for $14 million. Board members did question the wisdom of borrowing such a large sum, but the growing enrollment numbers and $3 million in tax credits convinced them to move forward.

SFAI shouldered $19 million of the $50 million project, borrowing the entire amount. A deed of trust on the school’s Chestnut Street campus secured the loan.

But as construction progressed, enrollment declined. By August 2017, when the new campus opened atop Pier 2, SFAI had only 433 students. Today, it has just 306. In the fall, it was projected to shrink further, down to 263.

The opening reception at SFAI's Chestnut Street campus for the Mission School survey 'Energy That is All Around,' 2013. (Courtesy of SFAI)

A Commitment to Fine Art

In the days following March 23, Knox and the board pointed to a number of factors contributing to the decline in numbers: the Bay Area’s prohibitive rents, the expense of a private college education, the fear of graduating with overwhelming debt.

And then there’s society’s devaluation of an art degree overall. And SFAI is distinguished among its peers for its exclusive commitment to fine art. While nearby California College of the Arts offers degree programs in illustration, interactive design and architecture—commercial curriculums that students (and their parents) might see as more marketable in the future—SFAI remains dedicated to its original mission of training fine artists.

It was at SFAI that Ansel Adams founded the first fine art photography department. William T. Wiley and other seminal funk artists attended the school in the 1950s. Barry McGee, Alicia McCarthy and Ruby Neri—core members of what is now known as the Mission School—are all SFAI alums. Nowhere but SFAI would Bruce Conner be able to teach an undergraduate seminar described as “Wasted Time: unproductive activity of no practical application.”

As for costs, undergraduate tuition for the 2020–21 school year is listed on SFAI’s site as $45,664, graduate tuition as $47,850. Ninety percent of SFAI’s domestic students take out some form of loan to pursue their educations, loans that must one day be repaid. Amid the student debt crisis, a nearly $280,000 art degree can be a hard sell.

“As enrollment goes down, the number of students just can’t support the administrative overhead of a four-year accredited college,” explains union board member Elizabeth Travelslight, one of 90 adjunct faculty who teach 75% of SFAI's total instructional hours. “Even with the vast majority of the teaching being done by low-wage workers.”

Stopgaps and Attempted Solutions

With less students to accommodate, SFAI sought ways to monetize its real estate via short-term event rentals and long-term leases. The school simply didn’t need all 67,000 square feet at Fort Mason, let alone over 160 art studios, so it rented out gallery space on both campuses, hosted weddings and courted subtenants. Then the coronavirus hit, canceling everything.

A more avoidable situation created other cash flow problems. At the end of 2019, believing there were funds available to borrow, Knox authorized spending $1.9 million to fix a leaking roof over the Chestnut Street painting studios. “By the time we finished that job, the bank decided they would not advance us these funds,” Levy explained. The $1.9 million roof job was paid from cash on hand.

An installation for SFAI's 2017 gala, titled 'The Original Disruptor.' (Courtesy of SFAI)

But SFAI might have remained SFAI—during a pandemic, without rentals, with institutional debt and a smaller student body—if the school had more of an endowment to draw upon during hard times. (Tuition and student fees currently account for about 85% of the school’s $18 million operating budget.)

Repeatedly, in the town hall meetings after March 23, Knox and board members assured students, faculty and staff they’d been cultivating donors and soliciting funds well before this moment.

But if there was money out there to keep SFAI out of financial exigency, why hadn’t it been located? In the March 24 phone interview, Levy said an ideal situation would involve an unexpected windfall: “It would be lovely if a group of Silicon Valley philanthropists got together and said ‘We can’t let this happen.’ That would be wonderful.”

While that would be lovely, and while it would save both the board and SFAI’s leadership a lot of fundraising effort, it is not a plan.

The latest plan, the one without backups, was a merger with a larger school, which could relieve SFAI of some of the burdens of running an accredited college and absorb the school’s debt. But merger negotiations, which started in November (and which sources close to SFAI confirm were with the University of San Francisco), stalled in the face of a tanking economy. Dealing with significant losses to their own endowment, the larger school tabled the talks.

The details of those merger negotiations remain confidential. What little information students, faculty and staff had only raised fears about the loss of SFAI’s culture, changes to the school’s curriculum and layoffs.

Keisha Kidd, chair of the SFAI Student Alliance, remembers Knox visiting their weekly meetings excited about the plan. “He was being very positive and encouraging about it and trying to assure us there would be benefits for the students in this potential merger,” she said. “But it was never disclosed to us as something that was actually happening.”

And then it didn’t happen. And then, on March 31, the board asked Knox to take a leave of absence.

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What Can Come Next

The outline of SFAI’s immediate future is fairly determined. Students are finishing out their semester’s coursework remotely. BFA and MFA shows are canceled, along with graduation ceremonies. SFAI's faculty and staff are employed—for now—through the end of the semester.

After that, whether the school will be able to offer classes and degrees to students with one or two semesters left is a matter of fundraising. The school has established an emergency fundraising portal, but it’s still unclear exactly how the money would be used. (SFAI could also receive up to $10 million in forgivable loans to cover payroll through the CARES Act, which could prevent layoffs, depending on timing.)

And then, the board wants a full year to “reimagine” what can come next.

“Where we are in our decision-making is that the board is definitely committed to keeping the institution open as long as humanly possible,” Levy told student leaders in an April 1 video meeting. But long-term stability, she cautioned, won’t be achieved over the course of the summer.

Remaining to be seen, also, is just how much input students, faculty and staff will have in future plans. Student and faculty trustees participate in board discussions, but ultimately, voting board members and board emeriti will decide on a specific plan for SFAI’s future in a closed executive session.

Knox’s duties are now assumed by Jennifer Rissler, the former vice president of academic affairs, and Mark Kushner, an outside consultant. (Through a school publicist, both declined comment for this article.) But before he stepped down, Knox seemed to have latched onto the idea of turning SFAI into an art center of sorts. In this vision of a “kunsthalle,” art education and exhibitions could take place without the financial pressure of running a four-year accredited institution.

Per a curious and long-standing arrangement, if that should happen—if SFAI ever ceases to operate as an institute of art, accredited or not—the property would cede to the UC Regents, along with the school’s debt.

Diego Rivera, 'The Making fo a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,' 1931. (Courtesy of SFAI)

What SFAI owns free and clear, and what may buy its future, is the Diego Rivera mural inside its Chestnut Street campus, commissioned by the school’s president in 1931. The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, recently appraised at $50 million, is not, as long believed, attached to the wall, but made on panels. Ultimately, Levy says, it could be removed from the space.

But even if the mural attracts a well-considered merger, or is sold to rid the school of debt, SFAI will never be what it once was. That’s been clear in the local art scene’s recent tributes on social media, an avalanche of “only at SFAI” class pictures, historic shows, legendary teachers and obit-like remembrances of the school.

And here’s where the effects of this particular crisis begin to spread outward, beyond the bounds of nostalgia: The dissolution of SFAI would be a devastating blow to Bay Area art. SFAI students and graduates help shape the culture of the entire region. Its faculty and staff hold vast art historical and institutional knowledge. Adjuncts, already in a financially precarious position, would have one less place to teach. SFAI’s laid-off faculty could lose their ability to remain in the Bay Area altogether, adding to the ongoing exodus of arts and culture workers from the region.

For years, decades, maybe the length of its entire existence, SFAI has been held together by the people who believe in its mission. In a letter to the board, the Student Alliance made it plain: “SFAI lives amongst us, and we refuse to let its legacy go.” Even a recently laid-off staff member, also an alum, still believes in the school’s impact: “I love this school,” he said.

“We all love the work we do,” says Travelslight. But, she adds, “Love alone does not save an institution.”

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