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The San Francisco Art Institute That Could Have Been

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The entrance to the San Francisco Art Institute’s Chestnut Street campus. (Courtesy of SFAI)

Almost everyone agrees on one thing: For the San Francisco Art Institute to have a future, it will need to change. But like most slow-moving objects that have been laden with debt, it’s having trouble altering its course.

SFAI’s most recent troubles began in March 2020, when the school, facing budget shortfalls after a failed merger attempt, announced it would halt enrollment and was preparing to lay off staff and faculty. In short order, the school’s president stepped down, students were encouraged to enroll elsewhere and nearly all adjunct faculty lost their jobs. In the fall, the University of California stepped in to save SFAI from foreclosure, buying the school’s $19.7 million debt from a private bank.

The University of California is now SFAI’s landlord. If SFAI has any intention of owning its Chestnut Street campus again, it will need to repay that $19.7 million (plus interest) within the next six years.

Only network television could cram more drama into such a short period of time, but before 2020 ended, two more bombshells landed. One was that SFAI’s board of trustees was considering the sale of the Chestnut Street campus’ 1931 Diego Rivera mural. The other was it had voted to spend $1.5 million from the school’s endowment, which raised concern and objection.

For a board-initiated group of alumni, staff and faculty, who for six months had diligently worked on a vision for SFAI’s future, this was the final straw, the final breach of trust in a long series of unmet promises, contradictory messages and decisions clouded in secrecy. The Committee to Reimagine SFAI had met at least once a week since August, putting in countless hours to envision a school rooted in lower tuitions, new power dynamics and the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.

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With the mural under threat and the questioned endowment spending approved, all good faith evaporated. The committee’s co-chairs called for then-board chair Pam Rorke Levy to step down as a condition of “[sharing] our work with the board.” The board declined.

Now, the Reimagine Committee’s findings exist in a bizarre limbo. The board canceled their final presentation the day before it was set to take place, the co-chairs formally resigned and the committee dissolved after making a town hall presentation to the public on Jan. 14. A recording of that two-hour session lives online, along with PDFs created by subcommittees focusing on issues like pedagogy, finance and governance.

But whether SFAI’s board will watch the presentation, let alone incorporate its recommendations, remains to be seen. The board says the committee missed a Dec. 31 deadline to submit their final report, but is still eager to hear their recommendations. “With all of the efforts the Reimagine Committee put into creating their commissioned findings and report, we continue to invite them to share it with the board,” said vice chair John Marx in a statement provided to KQED. He says the board finds it “a bit of a mystery as to why” the Reimagine Committee has “withheld it.”

Lost in the back and forth are ideas that represent the best of what SFAI could be, if the school only had the time, money or interest to implement them.

‘Everything Was on the Table’

The impasse may come down to a fundamental difference in power dynamics. After all, the Reimagine Committee wanted to see more faculty, staff and student participation at the highest level of SFAI’s governance.

When asked about this proposed shift, Marx said the school’s financial position is the foremost concern. “The board’s urgent and immediate priorities are to see through the current semester and to start rebuilding enrollment for the upcoming school year,” his statement reads. “As we create a forum to listen, with the intention of healing, we are committed to looking at how we can make the process more inclusive and open to the broader community. The form that takes will evolve as we all learn to build bridges of trust.”

And yet, the Reimagine Committee was made up of the “broader community.” Part of its activity was regular meetings with board members to keep everyone updated on the committee’s progress. Among its suggestions are a number of ways to make SFAI’s governance more inclusive. Marx’s answer, in other words, seems to describe work the Reimagine Committee has already done.

The opening slide from the governance subcommittee’s presentation on Jan. 14. (Courtesy Reimagine Committee)

The Reimagine Committee began taking shape in July 2020 with the selection of three co-chairs by the SFAI board, all alumni: Tom Loughlin, Karen Topakian and Christopher Williams. (Though Williams stepped down earlier in December.) The co-chairs gathered a formidable assembly. Adjunct and full-time faculty joined on, along with staff representatives and volunteers selected from an open call to the alumni population. Further community members joined various subcommittees. All told, over 50 people participated in the process.

According to the co-chairs, Levy said “everything was on the table.” She assured the committee the board would fundraise to make sure the school could actually implement their suggestions.

Over the course of 22 committee meetings and even more subcommittee meetings, the Reimagine team looked at the school’s existing strengths and weaknesses, examining programming, student populations and how programs could be funded. One week, Assistant Professor and Photo Department Chair Lindsey White, who co-chaired the governance sub-committee, says she spent 13 hours in meetings, not including an additional seven to nine hours of planning. Despite the time commitment, by all accounts, this volunteer group genuinely enjoyed hashing out difficult ideas.

“People dedicated so many hours and we were all learning together,” White says. “That’s really important and what kept the whole thing going. It was amazing to have a space to really learn with and from each other.”

Topakian, who was the board chair of Greenpeace for eight years, has plenty of experience creating productive agendas. But the trick with the Reimagine Committee, she says, was to get everyone on equal footing. Former students and their professors were now co-chairing subcommittees.

“I said early on that my belief and my practice was to model good behavior,” Topakian says. “So I wanted to show there was another way to bring disparate groups of people together to come up with the best possible outcome.” Among that good behavior, she says, was acknowledging the pain and turmoil people experienced (especially during the past year), but not letting those experiences keep the Reimagine Committee from dreaming up a better SFAI.

Optimistic Realism

From the start, the Reimagine Committee emerged as a serious working group. They reached out to experts in various fields to inform their recommendations in pedagogy; diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion; fundraising; marketing, enrollment and communications; sustainability and environmental justice; finance; and governance.

Many of the concepts they discussed have long been circulating through the halls of higher education and its alternatives. But it’s rare to see an entire school re-thought from the ground up, especially by a group of people intimately acquainted with the inner workings of that institution.

Some of the most compelling recommendations:

  • Offer a three-year MFA program to just 20 students at a time (in contrast to a pre-pandemic class size of 40–50).
  • Provide sensitivity training at every level of the institution, including students and administrators.
  • Make SFAI physically accessible (the Chestnut Street campus is currently an M.C.-Escher-like arrangement of stairs and few ramps).
  • Establish a cooperative governance structure, with staff rotating in and out of a 15-person board of directors.
  • Share as many documents and financial statements as legally possible.

Many of the proposals were direct responses to SFAI’s perceived shortcomings; transparency was obviously a core issue. In the Jan. 14 town hall, the depth and intricacy of the Reimagine Committee’s presentations were invigorating. This was the clearest and most compelling vision of SFAI that anyone had seen in the past year.

And unlike some board-issued statements regarding the school’s financial situation, the Reimagine Committee didn’t sugarcoat their findings. The finance team, represented by Stephen Mangum, laid out the numbers put together from financial records provided by the school.

A slide from the finance subcommittee’s Jan. 14 presentation, showing projected deficits for different approaches to the 2021–22 school year. (Courtesy Reimagine Committee)

Based on SFAI’s new agreement with the University of California, it will be making interim rent payments over the next six years, with a balloon payment of $24.1 million due in 2027 to reclaim its Chestnut Street campus. The finance team looked at two near-term scenarios for the 2021–2022 school year: operating with about 50 students at the current tuition (around $46,000) or going dormant. According to their modeling, the former would yield a $4.8 million deficit. The latter, just $1.5 million.

“This is still a problem,” the finance report reads, “but $3.3 million less of a problem than opening and teaching next year.” The only path forward, they concluded, was a year of dormancy to rethink the school’s economic structure.

Mark Kushner, SFAI’s interim COO, disputes these findings, saying they are not based on current or complete financial data. (The data the finance subcommittee used came from Kushner directly; Reimagine Committee co-chair Tom Loughlin says it took months of asking to get it.)

While conceding there would be savings to going dormant, Kushner said in a statement, “SFAI’s leadership does not currently recommend or support this model.” Instead, SFAI is accepting applications for the 2021–2022 school year.

In answer to Reimagine Committee claims that SFAI does not have the cash on hand to see through even the current spring semester, board chair Lonnie Graham (who assumed Levy’s role when she stepped down at the end of January) wrote, “The Board is committed to see current students through the end of the academic year and SFAI has the funds to honor this commitment.”

Beautiful Seeds

In the announcement of Levy’s departure from the board, SFAI listed one of her accomplishments as “engaging in a community-wide initiative to reimagine the institution’s programs and business model.”

Yet the opportunity for the board to truly “engage” with the Reimagine Committee has come and gone. Now that the group has disbanded, the board has issued statements contradicting the committee’s financial findings while touting their own ability to stave off bankruptcy and closure.

“We were asked to reevaluate the school holistically, from governance to marketing, but when we came back saying the current governance model wasn’t in line with SFAI’s core values as an institution, then our work is suddenly irrelevant?” White asks. “I hope not. This collective process to rethink art education is unprecedented, and I feel the school needs to lean in further. We’re just getting started.”

For many members of the Reimagine Committee, simply convening over those six months was a meaningful form of change. “I’ve never felt more included in a process like this at SFAI as a student or staff,” says Rye Purvis, who graduated in 2011 and was working in student affairs when the school closed its campuses due to the pandemic. She co-chaired the sustainability and environmental justice subcommittee with faculty member Thor Anderson.

“These things take time,” she says, pointing to the large audience at the Reimagine Committee’s public presentation. “One person out of those 200 people or so might say, ‘That’s a great idea, let me see if I can implement that where I work.’”

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This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the agreement between SFAI and the University of California and the sequence of events that led to the board’s cancellation of the Reimagine Committee’s final presentation.

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