The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)—one of the oldest art schools in the country and the alma mater of greats including Catherine Opie, Kehinde Wiley, and Annie Leibovitz—announced this week in an email that it will close permanently at the end of the spring semester unless it can establish a strategic partnership with a larger institution within the next few months. While virtual education classes for currently-enrolled students will continue unabated until the spring, at which point graduating students will receive their degrees, the San Francisco-based school is no longer accepting students in the fall, and faculty and staff were told to anticipate mass layoffs.
The email, cosigned by the school president Gordon Knox and board of trustees chair Pam Rorke Levy, cited the spread of the novel coronavirus as the principal factor in the school’s decision to shutter its doors after its 149-year run. “Given our current financial situation, and what we expect to be a precipitous decline in enrollment due to the pandemic,” the email reads, “we are now considering the suspension of our regular courses and degree programs starting immediately after graduation in May of this year.”
Yet the pandemic is only the latest element in a string of financial setbacks the school has recently faced. In 2017, while enrollment had been on a steady decline with few signs of improving, the school purchased a historic U.S. Army warehouse at Fort Mason and commissioned local firm Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects to adaptively reuse it into its new campus. This and other recent investments, according to the New York Times, have left the school with an estimated debt of $19 million that would only increase if the school attempted to continue operations.
The hardships the school has recently faced are similarly felt by art institutions across the country. Notwithstanding the parallels between SFAI and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin (SoAT), which announced its own closed enrollment only weeks prior to the spread of the coronavirus to the United States, museums large and small have been equally susceptible to the coronavirus. According to Artnet, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is expected to receive a budget shortfall of around $100 million alone due to its recent closure, has recently launched a campaign that requests $4 billion from the US government to support nonprofit art institutions.