San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), the nearly 150-year-old venerable art school that has produced a wide range of the 20th century’s great artists — from Richard Diebenkorn, Annie Leibovitz, Barry McGee, Paul McCarthy, Kehinde Wiley, Kathryn Bigelow, to Jerry Garcia — is closing its doors after the end of the spring semester. SFAI is the nation’s oldest and only school of higher education dedicated to contemporary art.
In a letter to students, faculty and staff on March 23, the school revealed it had been in negotiations to possibly merge with other San Francisco institutions, when talks broke down for, among other reasons, the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. As is characteristic of these times, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the closure, and the letter carried a tone somewhere between hopeful and dire:
“As a result, SFAI’s leadership has no clear path to admit a class of new students for the fall of 2020. Given our current financial situation, and what we expect to be a precipitous decline in enrollment due to the pandemic, we are now considering the suspension of our regular courses and degree programs starting immediately after graduation in May of this year. At this time, it is unclear when instruction will resume, and in what form, pending our efforts to secure additional funding and potentially resume our talks with educational partners.”
SFAI’s remote classes will continue through the end of this semester, with degrees awarded to graduating BFA, MFA, and MA students, although the cancellations of exhibitions and commencements are still in effect.
The letter states that there are ongoing negotiations with faculty and staff unions about how to move forward for scheduled Summer/Fall 2020 classes, and efforts are being made to place current students with other schools in the area. The news for faculty and staff at SFAI remains grim:
“In the next few days all faculty and staff will receive notifications that layoffs are planned for end of this semester, as required by state law and in light of the current financial crisis and still-unknown impacts of COVID-19. SFAI leadership is already in discussions with our unions about the timing and terms of any layoffs, and more information will be forthcoming shortly.”
The letter continues, recounting the resilience of the school, which survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that destroyed its original building on the city’s Nob Hill:
“Out of that disaster we emerged stronger than ever, establishing a world-class art institution that has since reinvented itself time and time again, endeavoring always to be at the forefront of new genres, new media, new means and modes of expression, always willing to take chances and risk failure in the passionate pursuit of art making.”
The letter, from Gordon Knox, President, and Pam Rorke Levy, Chair of SFAI concludes: “While we remain hopeful there is a strategic partnership that will allow this commitment to continue, we are realistic that this will not happen any time soon in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic.”
The letter from SFAI has prompted multiple responses from the school’s alumni. Among them:
“I’m so sad to hear this news. SFAI was instrumental in my life. I’m really sorry for those who are there now and facing this first hand. I feel terrible for you. It’s like losing a mentor, mother, best friend. SFAI is such a magical place.”- Sarah Baker
“As a 1976 graduate, this is such heartbreaking news to hear. I can’t imagine that place disappearing. Some of the best memories of my life were there and I still dream about it frequently. I hope someone finds a way to save SFAI for future generations. There is something desperately wrong with the world if this amazing art school is allowed to close.”-Vanessa Greene
“This is so sad to hear, the time I spent in that school and the people I met there will always hold a special place in heart. Oh how I loved that school!”-Felipe Ramirez
For more on the San Francisco Art Institute, please visit its website here.