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San Francisco Art Institute's Board Chair Steps Down Amid Financial Woes, Controversy

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SFAI's Chestnut Street campus was given city landmark designation in 1977. (Courtesy of SFAI)

The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) on Friday announced the resignation of Pam Rorke Levy, the board chair of the embattled art school who recently suggested selling a historic Diego Rivera mural to right the institution’s finances.

Elected as Levy’s successor is Lonnie Graham, a member of the Board since July 2020, former adjunct professor for the school and SFAI graduate. In a statement, Graham said, “As we move forward, I would like to see the San Francisco Art Institute continue to cultivate and sustain experimentation and innovation in the fine arts as we imagine an inclusive and collaborative educational environment.”

Lonnie Graham has been named new Board Chair for the San Francisco Art Institute.
Lonnie Graham has been named new Board Chair for the San Francisco Art Institute. (Mary Roberts)

Graham steps into the role during tenuous circumstances for the 150-year-old school. On Jan. 12, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to initiate landmark status for the 1931 Diego Rivera mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, located inside the San Francisco Art Institute’s Chestnut Street campus. Opposed by Levy, the decision effectively squashed any plans to sell the mural, estimated to be valued at $50 million, in order to help pay off the school’s debt.

The University of California Regents recently bought SFAI’s $19.7 million debt, and now serve as landlords for the Chestnut Street campus. The tenant agreement is in place for six years, during which time SFAI must either repay the debt to the UC Regents or forfeit the campus.

SFAI Co-Vice Chairs Bonnie Levinson and Jeremy Stone also stepped down from their positions at the school. Elected in their place as Vice Chair is John Marx, a member of the board for the past four months and a co-founding principal and chief artistic officer of Form4 Architecture in San Francisco.

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Also announced on Thursday was the launch of the school’s Access50 scholarship fund, seeded by a gift from RealReal CEO Julie Wainwright. In the announcement, SFAI noted that its “goal is to initially raise $8–$10 million to fund 50 students,” and ultimately build an endowment of $50 million. The amount of Wainwright’s initial gift was not specified.

To the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday, Levy touted the Access50 scholarship fund, as well as the board’s diversity, remarking proudly that “the majority of our board is either BIPOC, LGBTQ or both.”

But it’s debatable if that diverse board has been adequately set up for success. The school’s enrollment currently sits at just 27 students, down from over 600 students eight years ago.

Levy, who served as board chair for two and a half of those years, placed confidence in her successor. “[Graham] is uniquely qualified to help SFAI address its areas of improvement,” she said in a statement.

Levy will stay on the board through the end of January to assist Graham through the transition.

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