In Anniversary Show, Alumni Address SFAI’s Complex 150-Year Legacy

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Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 'Modern Attack,' 2020; Screen print on muslin, velvet, various trimmings and tassels. (Courtesy of the artist)

The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) turns 150 years old this month, and as one might expect of an institution that’s managed to survive multiple earthquakes, socio-political upheavals, and economic bubbles and recessions, its legacy is complicated.

Just ask the alumni with work featured in SFAI’s upcoming 150th anniversary exhibition A Spirit of Disruption:

“I have mixed emotions when I think about SFAI,” says ceramicist Cathy Lu, who earned her MFA from the school in 2010. “I want to hug the building. The faculty and students are great. But then there’s all that weird stuff that makes me want to look away.”

“It was a really special place for me,” says interdisciplinary artist Pablo Guardiola (MFA 2005). “But I have a lot of issues with the school.”

“It’s a little perplexing,” says transdisciplinary artist Nicki Green (BFA 2009). “It feels warm to have gotten to be a part of that experience, but it was also very complicated, sometimes very difficult, to be in the environment of the school.”

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“SFAI was a whole new world. I was able to meet people from all over, exchange ideas and be part of very interesting conversations. My practice truly expanded during my time there,” says multimedia artist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (MFA 2016). “But I hope it will treat its adjunct staff and student body with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

These former students’ bifurcated feelings about their alma mater are understandable.

Xylor Jane, 'Via Crucis II Cross,' 2010; Oil on panel. (Collection of Penny Cooper and Rena Rosenwasser)

A Bifurcated Reputation

On the one hand, there’s SFAI’s staggering global reputation and influence. SFAI was a hub for Abstract Expressionism, the Mission School, the Bay Area Figurative Movement and Funk Art. Its faculty included Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Angela Davis and Richard Diebenkorn. Annie Leibovitz, Catherine Opie, Kehinde Wiley, Barry McGee and Rigo 23 all studied there. And the school has long been celebrated for its tight-knit sense of community and spirit of wild experimentation.

“SFAI holds a special place in the collective arts world,” says Taylor Dafoe, a reporter at Artnet News who has written extensively about art education in this country. “For a lot of people, it represents this kind of platonic ideal of what an art school is: a funky, hyper-liberal West Coast bastion of creativity, where pieces of performance art are being staged in the hallways, dorm rooms are turned into studios and things like that.”

On the other hand, there’s the fallout from decades of ongoing financial struggles. Shrinking enrollment, rising tuition, job losses, failed merger attempts, costly building expansions and threats of closure have pushed SFAI to the brink.

This past year, fueled in part by the coronavirus pandemic, SFAI almost fell over that brink. Last spring, the school announced it would stop enrolling new students. The president stepped down and many adjunct faculty members were laid off. In the fall, the University of California purchased the school’s $19.7 million debt from a private bank, thereby becoming the landlord of SFAI’s historic Chestnut Street campus.

Then, right at the end of last year came a pair of widely-criticized moves by the school’s board of trustees: they considered selling off SFAI’s prized Diego Rivera mural (that possibility was upended at least for now by a Board of Supervisors decision to confer landmark status on the artwork) and voted to spend $1.5 million of the school’s $5.4 million in investments and unrestricted endowment.

“Its future does not look promising at this point,” Dafoe says, adding that other art schools in North America, such as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada and the Watkins College of Art in Nashville, Tennessee, have been facing similar travails. “It’s worth noting, though, that none of these schools have had the reputation or generational influence that SFAI has had throughout its history.”

Co-curators Margaret Tedesco and Leila Weefur at SFAI’s historic Chestnut Campus, 2020. (Photo by Alex Peterson; courtesy of San Francisco Art Institute)

A Third Way

Faced with the unenviable task of putting together a landmark art show against the backdrop of these two somewhat competing realities, the curators of A Spirit of Disruption are interested in presenting the school’s legacy in a third way.

“The concept behind curating this exhibition is to disrupt the history,” says Oakland artist, curator and former SFAI faculty member Leila Weefur, who co-curated the exhibition. “We don’t want the financial turbulence to overshadow this amazing milestone for both the artists and for the institution, and we’re dedicated to making sure that we pay very close attention to which artists in SFAI’s 150-year history have not been a priority in the visibility of the school.”

“It’s an invitation to read between the lines,” says fellow co-curator, longtime SFAI staffer and educator Margaret Tedesco.

Between a gallery show and a video archive, Weefur and Tedesco have selected the work of close to 200 artists—all of them with connections to the institution from its recent and long-distant past—for A Spirit of Disruption, which opens both online and at the school’s Chestnut Street campus on March 19. Their selections stand in stark contrast to the majority of the artists previously celebrated during the school’s history, whom the curators say have mostly been white and cis-gendered. (This is possibly reflective of SFAI’s historical demographics, though the latest data shared by the school shows increased racial diversity in faculty and students  between 2010 and 2019.)

Green engages her queer and trans identities through sculptures of mushrooms. “I think about fungi as this kind of metaphor for otherness,” Green says. “The mushroom itself is the fruiting body of the organism, and in my work, I’m exploring this form as a stand in for the queer body, or even as queerness itself.”

Lu’s background growing up in an Asian family around everyday and exotic produce in the grocery stores of Miami, Florida informs her large-scale artwork featuring various ceramic fruits.

'Customs Declaration' by Cathy Lu. (Courtesy of the artist)

“I think about the fruits as a metaphor for immigrants,” says Lu. “The reason why those foods are there is because the immigrants who moved there wanted to eat those foods. A lot of the foods that we think of as American are actually not native to the U.S.”

Tedesco and Weefur also pay homage to underrepresented community members from SFAI’s less recent past, such as the artist’s model, educator, journalist and activist Florence Wysinger Allen.

Allen was born in Oakland in 1913 and went on to become a pivotal figure in San Francisco’s artistic scene until she passed away in 1997. She sat for artists like David Park and Wayne Thiebaud, and helped found the San Francisco Models’ Guild, which paved the way for higher wages for people in her profession. All of this at a time when Black models were extremely rare.

“Flo Wysinger held quite a large presence on the campus and in the Bay Area,” says Tedesco. “She was quite an entrepreneur, very forthright, loved the body as the form for the benefit of all the artists that she served.”

The curators say that despite Allen’s status as a local celebrity, she often wasn’t given the respect she deserved. Like most artist’s models, her name was often omitted from curatorial materials and she was looked down on in the media.

Philipp Weisman, 'Untitled,' 1955. An oil painting believed to depict Florence Wysinger Allen. (Courtesy Pam Martin)

“She’s very objectified,” says Weefur.

“For instance, we have newspaper articles that refer to things like her ‘caramely, chocolaty body,’” Tedesco explains.

“And I think at the time we didn’t have the language for how a lot of the white men she was working with were framing her in the works that she was contributing her body to,” Weefur says, adding that Allen is the subject of an entire episode in the 10-part podcast series the curators are putting together to accompany the exhibition.

Uncertain Future

While A Spirit of Disruption may help the public engage with a more nuanced version of SFAI’s past, the school’s future remains uncertain.

Many of the featured artists know that SFAI’s fiscal struggles are nothing new. Yet they’re still deeply shocked at the present set of circumstances and worried about what lies ahead.

“To lose the San Francisco Art Institute, a major institution not only in the United States but across the world, would be a disaster,” says artist Mildred Howard, who served on the school’s faculty from 1998 to 2015 and was an artist’s model at SFAI starting in the 1970s.

Howard was among the group of people who were for the sale of the Rivera mural. “I truly believe that Diego Rivera thought that if that mural that he painted would save an institution, selling it would be just fine.” Howard says art is a business, not just a passion, so she’s dismayed about the outcry against the sale.

“There’s so many people that don’t understand how art can be used,” Howard says. “I don’t think they truly understand the larger picture of the San Francisco Art Institute and its importance to this country and to the world of art.”

In an email to KQED, a school spokesperson said the board has a fiduciary responsibility to consider all options and scenarios to secure the future of SFAI, but no determinations have been made regarding a possible endowment or sale of artworks, including the Rivera mural, or other assets. The email stated that SFAI aims to raise $19 million within the next six years to purchase the Chestnut Street campus from the University of California. If SFAI cannot pay off or refinance that amount by 2026, UC takes possession of the campus and SFAI must vacate the premises.

“That will mean moving ahead aggressively on four fronts: rebuilding enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, maintaining our fundraising momentum, developing new revenue streams that will include leasing out all or part of the Fort Mason campus, and refinancing Chestnut Street with a long-term traditional real estate-backed mortgage enabling SFAI to repurchase the campus and pay it off over 30 years,” the spokesperson said. “These are ambitious goals, but they are achievable if the staff, faculty, alumni and board work together with the support of the philanthropic community.”

But some artists say the school hasn’t shown much interest in taking an inclusive approach to solving its problems thus far. Guardiola says the board should listen more carefully to the diverse voices in the school’s community—at the very least to the board-initiated group of alumni, staff and faculty who were meeting regularly during the second half of last year to reimagine a new future for the school, a group that has since disbanded. Some members of that Reimagine Committee, and artists interviewed for this story, expressed anger and a loss of trust in the board over the Rivera murals and endowment shenanigans.

“I think it’s important to have a proper balance of power, where the actual community, which is a really diverse community, has a say,” Guardiola says. “It’s important for that community to be involved in the final decision making.”

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‘A Spirit of Disruption’ is on view March 19–July 3 in the Walter and McBean Galleries and Diego Rivera Gallery at the San Francisco Art Institute (800 Chestnut Street). Details here.