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In a San Francisco Bell Tower, SFAI’s Archive Prepares for a Big Move

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Older white man looks to left and smiles in room filled with bankers boxes
Archivist Jeff Gunderson among the boxes containing a fraction of the San Francisco Art Institute’s 152-year-old history on Feb. 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge)

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t’s been very quiet on the San Francisco Art Institute campus since the school closed its doors behind its last graduating class on July 15, 2022. Except for a security guard, archivists Jeff Gunderson and Becky Alexander are the only regular visitors to 800 Chestnut St. Even the fountain’s turtles have been relocated to the Sonoma County Reptile Rescue.

But that stillness belies the major work taking place behind the scenes, in Zoom meetings and over email, to create a brand new and financially separate nonprofit institution known as the SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive. While the school wobbles at the edge of seemingly inevitable bankruptcy proceedings, the newly formed legacy foundation aims to shepherd SFAI’s tangible history into a safe, stable and publicly accessible future.

“The scenario that led SFAI to not be in the business of providing education … became the opportunity for us to do something which I think would be profoundly important even if they were still providing education,” says Charles DeSantis, legacy foundation president and board chair. He is joined by Gale Elston, a New York-based lawyer with a background in artists’ rights, and Katie Hood Morgan, the former curator of exhibitions and public programs at SFAI, now an independent curator.

DeSantis, the chief benefits officer and associate vice president for benefits and wellness at Georgetown University, also attended SFAI for what he calls his “self-appointed post-baccalaureate program” in the early 2000s, connecting deeply with the faculty, campus and student body. Elston has worked with SFAI-connected artists and used to live a few blocks from the school.

Empty Italianate courtyard with trees, fountain and shadows
Piles of scattered leaves cover the brick ground of the courtyard of the San Francisco Art Institute in on Feb. 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge)

Despite their connections, all three founding board members are new to leadership positions at the school. This was purposeful. After the tumult of the past three years, the legacy foundation needed to be completely separate from SFAI’s administration, board and even the Reimagine Committee, a group of alumni, staff and faculty who met for six months in 2020 and early 2021 to propose a radically different SFAI.

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In the listening tours that current SFAI board chair Lonnie Graham and vice chair John Marx undertook following the departure of embattled board chair Pam Rorke Levy, Marx says the issue of the archive kept coming up.

“This came from the community,” he says. “Every time we’d have a meeting, it’s like, ‘Well, if you go bankrupt, how are we going to protect the archive? How are we going to protect the spirit of the school?’”

Booklet cover with text over black and white photograph of students playing basketball on brutalist campus
The 1973–1974 catalog advertising courses at SFAI. (Courtesy the SFAI Legacy Archive + Foundation)

What the archive is

The archive is expansive. Currently housed in the Anne Bremer Memorial Library and within three chilly, musty rooms in the school’s bell-less bell tower, it contains 550 linear feet of archival records from the school’s 152-year history. These include manuscripts, account books, minutes of meetings, photographs, blueprints, broadsides, ephemera, and audio and video recordings. Organization ranges from donations labeled “not yet looked through” to hyper-specific collections in acid-free boxes.

A sampling: a 1978 advertisement for SFAI’s summer session, featuring a “Non-Sculpture” class with Paul Kos; 1878 board minutes approving Eadweard Muybridge’s use of rooms for “the exhibition of his photographs of trotting horses”; a collection of student newspapers and periodicals, including The Philistine (1992–1996); documents relating to the Montalvo estate in Saratoga, which SFAI once owned (!); and a well-organized section on parties thrown between 1904 and 1976. There’s even an ever-popular ghost file, which includes documentation of several visits from ghost hunters seeking out the spirit who supposedly haunts SFAI’s tower.

As archivist Gunderson says, “No one ever threw anything away here, you know? And the last time it really burned up was in 1906. So there’s a lot of stuff.”

Shadows fall across pages of handwritten text in elegant cursive
A board of directors meeting log from 1878 sits open to a page that mentions Eadweard Muybridge, known for his photographic studies of motion of humans and animals, at the San Francisco Art Institute on Feb. 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge)

In November 2022, SFAI’s archive officially transferred to the newly formed legacy foundation, and with it the right to administer a 2022 National Endowment for the Humanities grant. This $234,820 award will pay for Gunderson and Alexander’s labor and materials as they arrange, describe and rehouse the materials. For while the archive has always been open to researchers, the grant application points out, informing dozens of books, articles, exhibitions, films, lectures and courses, “it has never been as accessible or discoverable as its historical value demands.”

Caring for the archive in this way is also a matter of equity. Instead of just the “greatest hits,” this project will allow lesser-known stories and new voices to emerge in the school’s history. “We’ll be looking at everything at least a little bit and have a chance to see what has been buried in there, which is very cool,” Alexander explains. Eventually, all the descriptions and finding aids will be available via the Online Archive of California. “It’ll be just a lot more easy to find what you might not even have known you were looking for,” she adds.

In the immediate, the legacy foundation’s goal is to raise enough funds — DeSantis says “at least $100,000” — to rent space to house the archives, and where Gunderson and Alexander can start their work. If they can raise $250,000, DeSantis says, all the better. That would guarantee a bit of stability. The legacy foundation is looking for a minimum of 650 square feet in San Francisco, though the long-term goal is to house the archive somewhere larger, where the public could visit and programming could take place.

In true SFAI fashion, the deadline for when the archive must leave campus is uncertain, as is the very future of 800 Chestnut St.

Looking down on dimly lit space with empty work tables
The ceramics studio sits empty at the San Francisco Art Institute on Feb. 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge)

What the archive is not

There are many things the archive is not: the Diego Rivera mural, the circulating books in the library, the studio equipment and the campus itself. The archive is not an educational institution. In fact, so long as SFAI, “the school,” exists in some form, the legacy foundation cannot offer instruction. Improbably, half a year after the proposed merger with USF fell through, SFAI “the school” endures, paying rent to the UC Regents.

Will SFAI have to declare bankruptcy? Marx says that is “the interesting question with no easy answer.” SFAI and the UC Regents, who now own 800 Chestnut St., are in negotiations with developers about a possible sale. Reasonable uses of the property could include education, housing or a hotel.

“But ultimately,” Marx explains, “the long-term success of SFAI and the ability to reemerge as a school of fine arts is dependent on being able to sell the mural.” Marx says that buyer would have to guarantee Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City remains publicly accessible, in situ.

Giant colorful mural lit by only skylight in otherwise empty room
The walls in the Diego Rivera Gallery sit empty except for Diego Rivera’s mural, ‘The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,’ from 1931, at the San Francisco Art Institute on Feb. 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge)

Complicating this potential sale is the fact that SFAI no longer owns the gallery the mural exists within — the UC Regents do. In one dream scenario, a museum could buy the Rivera and establish a satellite gallery with an easement of sorts; SFAI might reemerge with a smaller footprint, perhaps just as a graduate program.

“We are definitely aggressively pursuing every opportunity that we still have relative to restarting the school,” Marx says. Even so, if the school loses all its assets and emerges with something like $5 million, that’s not enough to move forward. In that scenario, SFAI “the school” would pay the faculty and staff additional severance and close for good.

“The goal is to restart it, not to just have it linger on in some sort of near-death experience,” Marx explains.

The archive leaves SFAI

For nearly 100 years, the archive has been part of the campus architecture. It lines the staircase of the bell tower, taking up nearly every available nook and cranny. Removing the material from the school will be “wrenching,” Alexander says. But at the same time, maybe it’s for the best. “We don’t want to be the ghosts,” she adds.

On a recent visit to SFAI, Gunderson toured me around the archive and through the empty school. Leaves had blown down hallways and into studios. A succulent grew out of a once heavily trafficked concrete step. There was a bit of a stench in the sculpture pit, where the drains used to get flushed out on a regular basis.

Cast plaster statue of Tweety bird sit inside ajar locker
A sculpture sits in an open locker at the San Francisco Art Institute on Feb. 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge)

All the creative energy that used to fill those spaces is now dispersed among the SFAI’s former staff, faculty, students and fans. The school’s alumni group, in particular, has worked hard to keep those connections alive. That’s where the SFAI Legacy Archive + Foundation can act as a destination, and what makes its board hopeful for success.

Sponsored

“There’s so much desire to help and chip in and really contribute to something positive related to the school,” Morgan says of their bet on the next 152 years. “I think people have been looking for that, hoping for that, like a ray of light of some kind.”

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