The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) is shuttering after more than a century and a half and will reorganize as a nonprofit in order to “protect its name, archives and legacy,” the school said in a statement. The demise of the institute follows the announcement that a merger deal offered by the University of San Francisco (USF) has fallen through: According to the San Francisco Chronicle, USF President Paul Fitzgerald in a statement issued July 15 noted that the school had “informed SFAI leadership that it would not enter into a definitive agreement with SFAI due to business risks that could impact USF students, faculty, and staff” and would instead open its own art department.
SFAI’s fall comes after two years of financial turmoil. Shortly following the advent of the global Covid-19 crisis, SFAI in March 2020 announced plans to suspend enrollment and lay off faculty. A month later, after adopting what it called “extreme measures,” the board revealed that the school would remain open with limited academic offerings. SFAI at that time ceased offering degree programs, instead offering on-site and online studio art classes, public education programs, and grant-supported exhibitions and conservation projects meant to sustain it while reinventing its business model and pursuing potential partnerships. Then, in July 2020, the school reversed course, announcing that it would resume degree-granting classes that fall for students already enrolled at the institute who were within a year of graduating. The move was seen as partly financial, as the school was contractually obligated to pay tenured faculty through the end of the year.
By January of 2021, SFAI was exploring the sale of its iconic and site-specific 1931 Diego Rivera mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, valued at $50 million. Filmmaker George Lucas and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art emerged as potential buyers, but an uproar ensued and city officials voted unanimously to begin the process of designating the work a national landmark. This past spring, the Mellon Foundation issued a $200,000 grant for the mural’s restoration. Its fate is murky in the wake of the closure announcement.
Among the noted teachers at SFAI over the years were Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. Alumni include Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Michael Heizer, Annie Leibowitz, Paul McCarthy, Catherine Opie, and Kehinde Wiley.