Financially struggling S.F. Art Institute admits new students, embraces wider audience

New students, new exhibitions and a digitized archive

By Max Blue

Special to The Examiner

The San Francisco Art Institute, perched on Russian Hill overlooking North Beach, often is touted as the oldest art school on the West Coast. But it’s also much more.

The Walter and McBean Galleries host exhibitions of major artists, both local and international, and the Anne Bremer Memorial Library houses an extensive archive with an emphasis on San Francisco art history.

Like many academic institutions, SFAI faced questions of how to proceed in light of the pandemic. In early 2020 when the school appeared on the brink of closure, students were forced to enroll elsewhere in order to complete their degrees.

Then, SFAI managed to raise funds and by October 2020 allowed the University of California Regents to purchase their $19.7 million dollar debt, becoming SFAI’s effective landlord. The institute also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan to meet payroll for its skeletal staff and faculty, allowing roughly 25 continuing students to complete degrees amid the pandemic.

For the fall 2021 semester, the school reopened enrollment to upper-division transfer students to its undergraduate program and to graduate students. This means it will remain a pivotal fine arts institution benefiting the local and global art world. However, the education program has diminished, with just 54 enrolled students this semester, down from approximately 250 in the 2018-2019 academic year.

“As we test this new, innovative transfer model, we are also building a bridge program to accept students out of high school and transfer them in after at least one year of foundational community college coursework,” said Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs Jennifer Rissler. “When the bridge program commences, we’ll integrate its students into the SFAI community before they start their classes at SFAI.”

The exhibition “Dust Specks on the Sea” at the S.F. Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries features sculptural work by more than a dozen artists from the Caribbean diaspora. (Jasmine Zhang/Courtesy San Francisco Art Institute)

The exhibition “Dust Specks on the Sea” at the S.F. Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries features sculptural work by more than a dozen artists from the Caribbean diaspora. (Jasmine Zhang/Courtesy San Francisco Art Institute)

This is one example of how SFAI is broadening its reach. Another is in the relaunching of its public programs. The exhibition that recently opened in the Walter and McBean Galleries, “Dust Specks on the Sea,” features sculptural work by more than a dozen artists from the Caribbean diaspora. The show opened in Harlem and has toured to Miami and Albuquerque before coming to SFAI, and many of the artists included have never before shown on the West Coast.

Curatorial and Special Projects Consultant Katie Hood Morgan, who assisted Arden Sherman in the curation of “Dust Specks” and brought the show to SFAI, has a long history with the institute. She served as assistant curator and exhibitions manager from 2012 to 2017 and as curator of exhibitions and public programs from 2017 to 2019. Now, she has been contracted to build out SFAI’s public programs, a blueprint that currently looks two years into the future.

The next exhibition will be a retrospective of the work of Carlos Villa (1936-2013), who was both a student and professor at SFAI. Presented in partnership with the Asian Art Museum, it stands to be the first major museum retrospective of a Filipino American artist. Morgan noted she is also looking forward to programming a robust lecture series in the near future. (Regular, in-person lectures at the institute have become infrequent during COVID.)

Morgan noted the opening of “Dust Specks” welcomed students, faculty and visitors from beyond SFAI. “I think there’s a real hunger for this,” she said. “You’re not just making a show in a vacuum with the immediate exhibition team. People want to engage. Some of the best feedback I’ve gotten is that students are coming in and spending time with the work and using it to supplement their coursework.”

And what students do with that influence will have a ripple effect, in which SFAI is the nucleus. “Because it is an academic institution,” said Librarian and Archivist Jeff Gunderson, “everything at the school benefits the students, but those things also draw in a wider community.”

SFAI’s archive in the Anne Bremer Memorial Library embodies this as a research collection informed by the school’s legacy. Recently, there has been a grant-funded effort to make parts of the archive available digitally, to serve a larger audience. During COVID, the library has also offered virtual research visits, though since early 2021 researchers have been able to have a physical presence by appointment.

“It seems like we’ve had even more researchers,” Gunderson said. “I think seeing that archival material in context makes more sense whereas it would drift into different segments in a larger institutional archive.”

The physical component to the school’s presence, from its concrete location on Russian Hill to its place in the art world, is resonant. “There’s a reason why the beatniks came here,” Gunderson said, “why the hippies came here, why the punks came here. All of the things happening around SFAI played into the culture here and SFAI played into those things with the visual component.”

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