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The San Francisco Art Institute won’t close after all

Let's Hear it for People Power

The San Francisco Art Institute won’t close after all

Despite declining enrollment, in 2017 SFAI purchased a historic army warehouse at Fort Mason and commissioned Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects to convert it into a new campus building. This helped contribute to the school’s mounting $19 million debt. (Bruce Damonte)

A month after AN reported that the 149-year-old San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) would be closing its doors at the end of the spring semester, it looks like reports of the venerable art institution’s death were premature.

The San Francisco-based school was laid low by a one-two punch; a combination of already declining enrollment, and economic uncertainty brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic. While students were able to finish out their last semester via online classes—as many of their peers around the world are also currently preparing for—enrollment and degree programs were closed, and faculty was laid off. While the school was looking into merging with a larger institution to stay afloat, the administration acknowledged in a statement last month that that plan had been derailed by coronavirus.

Since then, an April 2 letter signed by over 60 alumni, curators, supporters, and other art world professionals imploring the school to find alternate routes forward, and the media coverage, has reportedly helped spur private donations to keep SFAI alive. Now, the school has reversed course and stated that it will look into fundraising and other avenues to keep SFAI’s doors open, though for the time being it’s still canceling all of its accredited programming.

Having already raised $3 million in donations, the school will, as The Art Newspaper mentions, hold a series of benefit auctions and parcel out pieces of its collection, including rare works from Robert Mapplethorpe and Wayne Thiebaud. As SFAI CEO Mark Kushner told Artforum, “As the year unfolds we’ll look at new platforms and new business models, and roll out programs as we reimagine them together. And consistent with SFAI’s history, artists will play an important role in driving the decisions we make as an institution.”

All of this is intended to put the school on a more stable financial footing until it can finalize a merger with a larger institution and secure a route forward for SFAI to exist beyond May 2021. What form that will take, and what the school’s new business models will look like, however, remains to be seen. In the meantime, SFAI will offer online and in-person art classes (when we can all go outside again), conservation projects, and exhibitions, funded through grants.