SFAI

The San Francisco Art Institute announced Friday it is closing for good after 151 years.

My heart is heavy with the news that the San Francisco Art Institute (1871-2022) has announced its permanent closure. Following the up and down tension of a possible merger with the USF for much of the calendar year, a statement from SFAI released Friday revealed the deal was off

“SFAI is no longer financially viable,” the statement read, “and has ceased the operation of its degree programs,” but “SFAI will remain a nonprofit organization to protect its name, archives, and legacy.”

It would be impossible to briefly convey the immensity of SFAI’s legacy. Eadweard Muybridge screened the first known motion picture there. Ansel Adams founded one of the first fine art photography departments there. Ed Hardy, Annie Leibovitz and Kehinde Wiley studied there. Imogen Cunningham, Angela Davis and Richard Diebenkorn taught there. It’s unimaginable the archives of such a storied institution won’t survive in some form, though the reality of the aforementioned nonprofit is still unclear. That said, there was also a time when it was unimaginable to me that the school wouldn’t exist.

I arrived at SFAI almost a decade ago, very young and very unsure of who I was and where I fit into the art world, let alone the world at large — only that I loved art, might want to make it and needed to find a way to spend my life surrounded by it. By the time I graduated — still young, still very unsure of many things — I didn’t know where I’d end up (still don’t), but I knew more about myself and where I was going.

I majored in art history only after I had studied darkroom photography, drawing, painting, film and performance art, and realized that my interests were too broad to fit comfortably into a studio practice. I met my first serious girlfriend, who was also, briefly, my first wife, a relationship that taught me a lot about love and about myself. I got my start writing art criticism thanks to two professors’ recommendations to two local, online publications, the first evidence that I could make a career out of my love for art.

And the school’s impact on me wasn’t limited to these singular events. Like an incubator, it was constantly affecting me. How many hours did I spend in the library, where I held a job as an assistant clerk, discovering artists and writers through a kind of osmosis? How many cigarettes did I smoke on the rooftop amphitheater, hashing out art theory with other equally impassioned, confused students? How many times did I feel, in those moments of discovery and delirium, that to study at SFAI was to be carried on the current of a great history, and carrying it forward?

But even then, the place was already in the throes of financial catastrophe. Each year I watched as, between attrition in my own class and shrinking sizes of incoming classes, enrollment diminished. Still, until this week, I couldn’t bring myself to visualize a future in which the community vanished altogether.

I believed the school could persevere by dint of its magic. I know that sounds foolish, but let it be a testament to just how deeply that magic affected me. I just had more faith that SFAI’s magic would make it worth saving in the eyes of those who could. I’m left disillusioned by this latest proof that, in one of the richest cities in the country, there is not enough interest in the preservation of culture, among mega-corporations or billionaires, to have helped SFAI survive. 

Mostly, I’m just heartbroken that the place that opened so many doors for so many people has closed its own for good. But I’m also harboring a little hope because I know I’m not the only one for whom SFAI was a magical place, where we began becoming the people we’ve continued to be. That’s the school’s greatest legacy.

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Max Blue writes about the visual arts and modern culture for the San Francisco Examiner and other publications.