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The San Francisco Art Institute staves off closure and announces merger plans

Saved and Staved

The San Francisco Art Institute staves off closure and announces merger plans

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)

Rumors of the demise of the 151-year-old San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) have been greatly exaggerated.

After the San Francisco-based art school announced it should shutter at the end of the spring semester in 2020 due to its precipitous financial situation, it abruptly reversed course a month later in April after an outpouring of support from alumni, curators, educators, and other supporters. On February 2, the SFAI revealed that it had signed a letter of intent with the University of San Francisco (USF) to explore integrating the two schools’ programming, ending with the latter acquiring the SFAI.

Founded in 1855 as the city’s first university, USF is a Jesuit institution with over 10,000 students currently enrolled across a broad variety of majors, from business to law to nursing. According to the announcement, the two schools had been exploring integrating their arts programs over the last decade and have collaborated on exhibitions and events in the past.

With the letter of intent signed, a review period, expected to conclude sometime before this summer, will commence, allowing USF to dive into the SFAI’s finances, state of the Chestnut Street campus, and how accreditation will work. The arts curriculum of both schools will be tweaked to better represent the entity’s combined vision, and joint operations are expected to begin with the 2022 fall semester. Students already enrolled at SFAI will be treated as University of San Francisco students and gain access to the same services, accreditation, and opportunities as its other students.

According to the joint statement, the new institution will be known as the San Francisco Art Institute at the University of San Francisco (SFAI at USF). The University of San Francisco will also take over the SFAI’s physical assets, including its buildings, art and archival holdings, and film collection. That includes the latter school’s Diego Rivera Gallery and a large mural by the artist, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, inside.

Of course, followers of the SFAI in the news in recent years will know that the pandemic was only the coup de grâce for the struggling arts institute. Revenue and enrollment had been declining for years, but in 2017, the SFAI the school purchased a historic U.S. Army warehouse at Fort Mason and tapped local firm Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects to convert it into its new campus. When the March 2020 shutdown and freeze on new enrollments was announced, the school was holding $19 million in debt.

“We are committed to transparency and openness in our collaboration with faculty, staff, and students, and look forward to imagining the design of this new program with our communities,” said Reverend Paul J. Fitzgerald, president of USF. “Additionally, we are very aware of how vital SFAI is to the Bay Area’s cultural, artistic, and philanthropic communities, and we anticipate productive conversations with these essential partners.”

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