When schools around the U.S. shuttered in March as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, faculty and students were scattered around the world, forced to finish out the semester remotely. The students of the San Francisco Art Institute, however, finished the term under a considerably darker cloud.
On March 23, the school’s administration released a letter to the community saying that, due to the pandemic, it saw “no clear path” to enrolling students in the fall, and that it was “unclear when instruction would resume.” This seemed only the final nail in the coffin for an institution approaching its 150th anniversary. With graduates like Catherine Opie and Kehinde Wiley, SFAI once boasted faculty like Ansel Adams, and it has long been part of the beating heart of the city’s art scene. Many saw the letter as a harbinger of the end for one of the U.S.’s top art schools.
It didn’t have to be this way, according to several insiders interviewed for this article, some of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. Many of them said that SFAI’s possible demise was the result of rapid gentrification that made living in San Francisco unsustainable, potentially poor financial decisions by management, and a board unable to raise sufficient funds, with too much hope placed on a merger with an as-yet-unnamed larger institution that has yet to happen.
The school’s management says otherwise. In April, after major outlets such as Hyperallergic and the New York Times reported that the school was closing, the school’s president, Gordon Knox, who co-signed the March 23 announcement, went on leave. A letter to the school community from board chair Pam Rorke Levy offered no explanation; he resigned on May 1, according to a press representative of the school, and has not given interviews since then. (He could not be reached for comment for this article.) In his place, the board appointed VP of Academic of Affairs Jennifer Rissler as Chief Academic Officer, working with Interim Chief Operating Officer Mark Kushner, who, according to the announcement, had “worked with the board and staff last summer on a joint Strategic Partnership Initiative.” On April 27, the school announced that, contrary to “previous reports” and “rumors,” SFAI would remain open, and was merely suspending degree programs after finishing out the semester and “launching a campaign to reset and reinvent the school’s business model.”
Many who spoke with ARTnews called into question whether SFAI was telling the truth about its future. “The claim that the school is not closing is a lie,” said Elizabeth Travelslight, head of the school’s adjunct professors union.
SFAI’s statements over the past couple months have blamed the coronavirus pandemic for the financial uncertainty. The administration offers another cause, too: the failure of a merger with another Bay Area institution that could take on the school’s $19 million debt. (Some faculty members told ARTnews that SFAI was seeking to merge with the Jesuit University of San Francisco. Through a press representative, SFAI declined to confirm this.)
In the meantime, the faculty and staff have received notices that they will be laid off, students were instructed to apply elsewhere for next year, and no clear vision for the future has been articulated. Community members feel that, in the two months since the initial announcement, they’ve been gaslighted by the administration. Some laid-off faculty members told ARTnews that SFAI had instructed them not to speak to the press in order not to harm the institution’s image and its fundraising. (Through a press representative, the school’s administration said the faculty were given no such instructions.)
“It’s shortsighted to lay off all faculty but imagine that a 150-year lineage will continue,” said Lindsey White, chair of the school’s photography department. “You can’t have it both ways.”
“After you lay everyone off and dismiss the students, who is left to animate any new thinking about how the school can continue to live out its mission?” Travelslight asked. Speaking of the board, she continued, “This roomful of philanthropists is willfully ignoring the dozens of brilliant people in their midst.”
“Faculty have been asked to fundraise for the future while contending with layoff notices,” White said. “How can we raise money for a vision we’re not a part of?”
“People Have Come Out of the Woodwork”
In a phone interview, board chair Pam Rorke Levy claimed that the school’s board of trustees had “worked itself to the bone” and raised over $4 million since the pandemic began. By contrast, in a typical year, the board has been able to raise about $1.2 million, Levy said, adding, “People have come out of the woodwork.”
The push to save SFAI has come largely because of its vaunted legacy. The school has long been solely focused on the fine arts, without more lucrative programs in design and architecture, making it a rarity among premier art schools today. A consistent rise in the cost of living in the Bay Area, combined with a steady decline in the population of college-age students and a drop in tuition income, put the school in a pinch. The school, which has an endowment of $10 million, charges annual tuition of about $46,000 for undergraduates and about $48,000 for graduate students. While there have been as many as 700 students enrolled in the past, including undergraduates and graduate students, recent years have seen those numbers dwindle to about 300.
Levy said that, in 2015, SFAI had an opportunity to enter into a 60-year lease on studio facilities for graduate students on a pier in the Fort Mason arts complex, a five-minute drive from the school’s main campus. The complex was enticing to the board, Levy said—its interest rates were favorable, and the federal government had undertaken a good deal of the necessary renovations. Up until that point, graduate studios were an hour away, in the Dogpatch neighborhood. The complex would bring SFAI’s graduate students much closer to the heart of its campus.
In 2017, SFAI built a second floor on the existing facilities, offering the school twice as much square footage while paying a rate based only on the square footage in the ground floor. The new facilities opened in 2017, despite the board having raised only about half of the needed $15 million. When tuition income dropped, the pinch got tighter, according to Levy.
Some in the community say that moving the graduate students’ studios from the Dogpatch neighborhood to Fort Mason was a mistake, and that the failure to raise the needed funds made the financial hole much harder to get out of. The school got the mortgage for the Fort Mason facility on the strength of its historic property in the touristy Russian Hill neighborhood; its building there, home to a famed Diego Rivera mural, is just a block away from 950 Lombard Street, the city’s most expensive real estate listing, a gated compound that was offered at $45 million in 2019. (Further complicating matters, as reported by KQED, the property, as well as the school’s debt, will be ceded to the University of California Regents if SFAI ever ceases to operate as an institute of art.)
“It breaks my heart that the trustees agreed to raise money to repay the loan taken out to renovate the Fort Mason facility, and then they never did,” Travelslight said. Instead, SFAI “mortgaged the family home, so to speak, under the guise of commitment.”
Levy said that students were informed of the school’s dire financial straits, but some claimed otherwise. “We got the impression that the school was in severe hardship, but we were told not to share any of that information,” Yucky Yencken, a representative for the school’s student board, said.
According to Yencken, the board had instructed students on the board not to share information because the school was worried about decreasing enrollment. Then the board blamed students for being “misinformed,” Yencken said, “since the student representatives were supposed to convey the school’s position.”
Levy denies that faculty and student representatives on the board were instructed to remain quiet. “Faculty and students can and do speak to press, as well as prospective students and friends and family,” she said in an email. “It is an outspoken community and always has been. It would be foolish to try and muzzle them!”
“A Great Opportunity for a Time Out”
When Covid-19 hit, Levy said, the philanthropic foundations that support the school agreed with the board that the crisis actually presented “a great opportunity for a time out.” With its students now taking classes online, the school can work to cultivate a new audience for its in-person courses, while also continuing its programs in public schools, both on- and offsite, she said. “We are convening a commission of both internal stakeholders and faculty and staff as well as alumnae, former students, and outside experts in education and the arts and philanthropy, and businesspeople and the supporters we already have, to look at our programs long and hard,” she said.
The moment will be a critical one for SFAI, and some of its staff isn’t sure that the school has found a long-term solution. One adjunct faculty member questioned how, if at all, the board’s strategy would help grow its undergraduate enrollment numbers. “If you were going to send your child to a school, would you send them to a school that had gone through this? Unlikely,” the adjunct faculty member said.
Travelslight, the head of the school’s adjunct professors union, isn’t buying the sunny picture Levy is selling. Referencing the pending layoff of 95 faculty and 53 staff members, she said, “There will be nearly 100 teachers unemployed, and many hundreds more students stranded. They’re trying to find a new school to attend in the midst of a pandemic, and they are struggling to get into their studios to document their art. A lot of them are there on some form of financial aid, but those scholarships are not necessarily transferable.”
Maggie Bacon would have been a junior in the fall. “The merger was a Hail Mary,” she said. “It’s a real problem that they apparently had one option and when that fell through they just got rid of all the students and the teachers.”
Bacon created the website Save Fine Art in March. On it is a petition that calls on the board to be more transparent and not lay off staff, as well as information about mutual aid for students and faculty. As of this week, the petition has been signed by 1,700 people.
Under a section where the administration is quoted saying that it’s launching a “reset” after soliciting assistance from the community is a button marked with a single word: “BALONEY.”