Corrine Fitzpatrick on the future of the San Francisco Art Institute

A view of Alcatraz Island through SFAI’s cafe windows during the city’s shelter-in-place order, 2020. Photo: Lindsey White.

THIS PAST APRIL, during a fractious Zoom meeting between the faculty and trustees of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), the phrase “the house is on fire” was uttered multiple times. SFAI has faced existential threats more than once in its 149-year history: In the fires that ravaged San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake, the school literally burned to the ground. Although no act of God, the slow-moving crisis that has left the college too precarious to weather the current pandemic is no less intractable. At an institution where tuition and student fees reportedly account for 85 percent of the operating budget, SFAI’s solvency is threatened by shrinking enrollment, astronomical overhead, a restricted endowment, and lackluster fundraising. It is widely known that SFAI recently sought to merge with a larger local university, one willing to take on its $19 million debt. That Hail Mary, however, was tabled as soon as San Franciscans were ordered to shelter in place in March.

While faculty and students transitioned to online learning, SFAI’s board made a series of drastic decisions in closed sessions. They rescinded admission offers for the upcoming fall semester, placed the president on leave, issued layoff notices to all faculty and most staff, suspended degree-granting programs beyond the summer term, and brought in a charter school executive to serve as acting COO. Those already enrolled with more than a semester to complete were advised to transfer. Many who worked and studied at SFAI felt blindsided and strung along, their demands for transparency largely ignored. Adjuncts—who taught three-quarters of SFAI’s classes for low pay and no benefits—circulated a petition proclaiming, “Nothing about us without us.” In the words of one full-time professor, interactions with the administration and board have been “toxic and uncertain.”

Most recent reporting on SFAI’s fate reflects the cunningly opaque statements released by its board of trustees, promising that in the coming year they will “look at new platforms and new business models, and roll out programs as we reimagine them together.” This cheery talk reflects the bland techy optimism of San Francisco in the current era, while skipping past the roots of a beloved and influential institution that stretch back to the nineteenth century. The situation is far less rosy for those whose careers and educations hang in the balance.

SFAI’s most recent graduates—possibly the last—were honored in a lovingly produced online ceremony in May. A summer teach-out—the process by which a school fulfills its educational obligation to enrolled students before voluntarily closing—is underway for the thirty-five or so who are only one semester shy of their degree. Most of the adjuncts have been sacked, granted five weeks of severance via CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program funds, while the remaining faculty and staff have been told that they will learn this month whether they will be laid off by the end of August. It is not clear who will be kept on to teach the non-degree-granting programs slated for the fall. Of the nearly forty public education courses being offered online this summer, only one will be taught by a recent adjunct.

A groundswell of student and faculty organizing emerged throughout the spring. Student Alliance, the undergraduate governing body, reallocated at least $6,000 in activity funds to offer direct financial support to those in need, particularly international students who are not eligible for CARES money and federal stimulus checks. Seemingly overnight, an undergraduate named Maggie Bacon launched, a sophisticated online portal for the community to coordinate mutual aid, circulate petitions, and publish, as their mission states, “the narratives being left out” of official SFAI missives. In this spirit, I spoke to four members of the community—two student leaders, a full-time professor, and the school librarian and archivist, who, after nearly four decades at SFAI, is the closest the school has to an institutional memory.

A banner being flown above SFAI’s historic bell tower in celebration of the school’s graduating class, 1989. Photo: Jessica Tanzer and SFAI Archives.

Lindsey White is the photography department chair. She has been an assistant professor since 2016 and was an adjunct from 2008 to 2015.

WHEN THE BOARD AND PRESIDENT laid off all faculty and most long-term staff, and sent students elsewhere for the fall, they broke the school—they damaged its institutional memory, sapped its energy, and severed a lifeline for so many in the Bay Area and beyond. Everyone associated with SFAI wants it to survive, and we’re being asked to hold on, to trust the people who are letting us go. Every step of the way, we have been left out of the decision-making process.

It’s not too late; the board has a chance to fix these broken relationships and harmful practices. Faculty have put forth a proposal regarding how the school can move forward on shared governance. I hope they talk to us.

The board lacks a vision for the future, and many of us feel they don’t have the right to take charge at this point—especially after their continuous absence of oversight. It’s the job of faculty, students, staff, alumni, and the Bay Area art community at large to lead in a more sustainable and inclusive manner. We’re in this mess because the people at the top didn’t listen to their community. We’ve been ready to collaborate with the administration and board for years, but now we’re paying the price for their mistakes. It’s truly unfair.

Even in the midst of all this chaos, I never gave up on my first priority—teaching. I work closely with students, so we made space to talk about our feelings and tried to put that energy into something fruitful. I think a lot of them made some of their best work during the double trauma of a global pandemic and school closure.

Losing SFAI would be devastating for the Bay Area. Even before this pandemic, a lot of arts institutions collapsed. The school permanently folding would be the last straw for many working artists. It would not only affect staff and full-time tenure or tenure track professors, but the adjunct faculty who teach 75 percent of SFAI classes. An entire ecosystem dies. How will artists continue to survive here? And how will San Francisco change without brilliant young artists arriving to study at one of the last exclusively fine arts schools in the country? I think a critical and reverberating energy will disappear from the city in no time at all.

Dorothea Lange (lower right) lecturing at SFAI (which was then known as the California School of Fine Arts), ca. 1948. Photo: Bill Heick and SFAI Archives.

Christopher Williams graduated from SFAI with a BFA in 2017 and an MFA in 2020. 

IN EARLY APRIL, when the closure was first announced, I was in Zoom classes with the international students, and they were crying, expressing their pain about possibly getting deported because they were going to lose their Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) status. Their narratives weren’t being represented during online town halls with our elected graduate representatives, so I realized I had to take matters into my own hands—that’s how Grad Voice came to be. We’re an advocacy group, a collection of international students and people of color. We’re fully invested in the school. We pushed and pleaded, and the administration—especially Jennifer Rissler, the vice president and dean of academic affairs—made it happen: SFAI will be able to honor OPT and SEVP protections for one year. That was a big win!

If the school is going to be reconfigured, diversity must be taken into account: Our faculty is 90 percent white. African Americans make up less than 4 percent of the student body, while a little more than a quarter of enrollees are from countries across Asia and South America. Our board is very white, too—all of this needs to change.

I really hope SFAI will return as a degree-granting program. And it would be awesome if they rehired a lot of the faculty who’ve been let go. The school will be doing itself a disservice if it doesn’t.

A shelter-in-place barricade blocks access to SFAI’s tower, 2020. Photo: Lindsey White.

Rebecca Sexton completed the MFA portion of a dual-degree program at SFAI in May and will transfer to California College of the Arts to continue her MA. She served as an elected representative to the Legion of Graduate Students, a liaison between the administration and the student body.

EVERY WEEK has brought a new wave of sadness. SFAI’s move to online was not the smoothest, especially with the closure and all of the emotional turmoil it caused. The level of community that my fellow graduate students and I were cultivating on the Fort Mason campus just disappeared. There hasn’t been an official discussion with my peers regarding the language we should use to describe what is happening. I use the word closure because SFAI is effectively ending for me. I only applied to SFAI for graduate school and its dual-degree program. I don’t know what SFAI moving forward is going to look like because I just don’t see how they’re going to survive. It’s heartbreaking.

The level of academic rigor that SFAI offered was really important to me. I wanted a multidisciplinary education where I could pursue being both a scholar and an artist. SFAI was the only place where something like this felt possible, and that kind of freedom represented SFAI at its best. 


Students from SFAI (which was then known as the California School of Fine Arts) take a coffin to San Francisco’s financial district to raise money for the institution, which was in dire straits after GI Bill enrollment had tapered off and director Ernest Mundt’s plan for a mostly commercial art college failed, 1954. Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Jeff Gunderson has been the librarian and archivist at SFAI since 1981.

THE ANNE BREMER MEMORIAL LIBRARY was founded in conjunction with the San Francisco Art Association in 1871, but the school started later, in 1874. The library was always for studio artists. It also houses SFAI’s extensive archive. It has many items, including materials from before the 1906 fire, resulting in a rather comprehensive collection of San Francisco’s cultural history—as well as much of Northern California’s—from the last century and a half.

The three of us currently working here—we’ve lost three other staff members over the last twelve years—received layoff notices in April. But since then, things have somewhat changed. Two of us will be kept on through the fall and possibly longer, partially based on the fact that one of my coworkers made sure we wrote a grant to digitize all our recordings of lectures, symposia, conferences, etc. We received notification that we were awarded this grant earlier this year. Consequently, there is some funding for staff to do this work while hopefully keeping the library doors open by appointment. The function of the library for the next year will dramatically change as its primary mission has always been to serve the students, faculty, and curriculum.

Call me Pollyanna, but yes, I think it is possible for a revived SFAI to uphold the founding principles of the school. There have been ongoing battles over how things should be taught, but I think that artist-teachers, along with current art-world discourse, shape those ideas. From the Arts and Crafts courses of the 1910s or the mural classes that were offered during the first half of the twentieth century, to Ansel Adams teaching photography or Mark Rothko’s and Clyfford Still’s painting classes, along with the influence of Northern California’s Dadaists, Surrealists, and Conceptualists; its punk, funk, hippie, and graffiti movements; its avant-garde filmmakers—all of these elements and histories, local and global, are deeply ingrained within the psyche of the school and must be taken into account for its reboot. This legacy of irreverence and experimentation is at the core of the school’s identity. If it is not honored, it will fail.

One thing that we really need to avoid is being a springboard for someone’s pet projects and career-building. We require stewardship of a vision that was built by the school’s community of artists—students, faculty, and, most especially, alumni. They are tethered to the heart and soul of SFAI.

The lifeblood of the place is its students, so the crucial thing would be to make sure that we get back to accredited classes as soon as we can. I hope that SFAI realizes that one of its key assets—in addition to the Arthur Brown and Paffard Keatinge-Clay buildings at 800 Chestnut Street, and its galleries, studios, library, archives, and Diego Rivera mural—is its accreditation, something that is very hard to get and will probably be difficult to restore. I hope by this September we have things in place to announce a Fall 2021 Resurrection as a small rebel-outpost art college on the West Coast.

SFAI’s virtual BFA and MFA thesis exhibitions are available online from May 15 to June 20, 2020.