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San Francisco Art Institute’s North Beach campus. Courtesy of SFAI.
San Francisco Art Institute’s North Beach campus. Courtesy of SFAI.

San Francisco Art Institute to Stay Open with Limited Academic Offerings

The embattled San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), which issued a school-wide letter last month announcing its plans to suspend enrollment and lay off faculty because of mounting debt, will remain open. Despite media reports declaring that the nearly 150-year-old institute would close, SFAI’s board of trustees has confirmed that the school will continue operations.

As a result of the institute’s financial situation, which has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, SFAI will undergo a major restructuring. In lieu of degree programs, it will offer on on-site and online studio art classes, public education programs, and grant-supported exhibitions and conservation projects while it “reinvents” its business model and pursues potential partnerships.

“Our doors are open and we will continue to fulfill SFAI’s mission while functioning in a leaner, more focused manner,” said board chair Pam Rorke Levy. “We’ll use the year ahead to pursue strategic partnerships with other schools and embark on an accelerated campaign to raise philanthropic funds. Our goal is to put SFAI on a firm financial footing, able to sustain itself moving forward.”

In a release, the school said that the outpouring of support since it issued its initial letter on March 23—in which it encouraged students to begin considering transfers to other institutions—convinced the board to take “extreme measures” to remain open. A public statement that began circulating on April 2 and that was signed by more than sixty curators, scholars, and museum trustees expressed dismay at the school’s current crisis and faith that it would survive.

Commenting on SFAI’s future, chief operating officer Mark Kushner, who is coleading the institute with chief academic officer Jennifer Rissler, said: “As the year unfolds we’ll look at new platforms and new business models, and roll out programs as we reimagine them together. And consistent with SFAI’s history, artists will play an important role in driving the decisions we make as an institution.”

Earlier this spring, SFAI was holding merger talks with a larger San Francisco university, but the negotiations stalled because of the outbreak of Covid-19, which forced the institute to shutter its campuses and move all instruction online. Levy said that SFAI will return to merger and partnership discussions with other educational institutions this fall.

The school’s decision to temporarily drop degree programs will ultimately still lead to layoffs of both tenured and adjunct faculty members. In order to decrease its costs and raise crucial funds, SFAI will lease out its graduate school campus at Fort Mason and will hold two benefit auctions at Sotheby’s in June and November. The sales will feature works by numerous artists, including Don Ed Hardy, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Wayne Thiebaud.

Founded in 1871, SFAI is one of the country’s oldest arts institutions. A pillar of the Bay Area arts community, the institute has hosted celebrated artists and cultural figures, including Ansel Adams, Angela Davis, Dorothea Lange, and Mark Rothko, as teachers and has produced famous students, such as Kathryn Bigelow, Richard Diebenkorn, Annie Leibovitz, Paul Kos, and Kehinde Wiley.