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San Francisco Art Institute

Coordinates: 37°48′12″N 122°25′02″W / 37.803456°N 122.417144°W / 37.803456; -122.417144
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

San Francisco Art Institute
Former name
California School of Design,
Mark Hopkins Institute of Art,
California School of Fine Arts
TypePrivate art school
Active1871 (1871)–2022 (2022)
ChairmanLonnie Graham
Interim Chief Operating OfficerMark Kushner
Location, ,
United States

37°48′12″N 122°25′02″W / 37.803456°N 122.417144°W / 37.803456; -122.417144
4 acres (1.6 ha)
ColorsGray and Clear
Reference no.85

San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) was a private college of contemporary art in San Francisco, California. Founded in 1871, SFAI was one of the oldest art schools in the United States and the oldest west of the Mississippi River. Approximately 220 undergraduates and 112 graduate students were enrolled in 2021.[2] The institution was accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), and was a member of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD). The school closed permanently in July 2022.


19th century[edit]

The Atrium
The roof terrace at SFAI's Chestnut Street Campus offered a scenic view over the city.

The San Francisco Art Institute roots go back to 1871 with the formation of the San Francisco Art Association—a small but influential group of artists, writers, and community leaders, most notably, led by Virgil Macey Williams and first president Juan B. Wandesforde, with B.P. Avery, Edward Bosqui, Thomas Hill, and S.W. Shaw, who came together to promote regional art and artists, and to establish a school and museum to further and preserve what they saw as a new and distinct artistic tradition which had developed in the relative cultural isolation and unique landscape of the American West.

By 1874, the SFAA had 700 regular members and 100 life members and had raised sufficient funds and the necessary momentum to launch an art school, which was named the California School of Design (CSD). Painter Virgil Macy Williams, who had spent nearly ten years studying with master painters in Italy and had taught at Harvard College before coming to San Francisco,[3] became the school's first director and painting instructor—positions he held until his sudden death in 1886.[4] During Williams' tenure, the CSD developed a national reputation and amassed a significant collection of early California and western fine art as the foundation collected for a planned museum.

In 1893, Edward Searles donated the Hopkins Mansion, one of the most palatial and elaborate Victorian mansions ever built, to the University of California in trust for the SFAA for "instruction in and illustration of the fine arts, music and literature."[5] Named the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, it housed both the CSD's campus and SFAA's art collection. Through this new affiliation, students of the University of California were able to enroll in classes at the CSD.

20th century[edit]

In 1906, the devastating fire following the San Francisco earthquake destroyed the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art building, and the CSD and SFAA facilities, records and art collection. At the time, the replacement value of the building and its contents was estimated at $2.573 million. However, the combined amount of numerous insurance policies yielded less than $100,000 for rebuilding. Nevertheless, within a year, the SFAA built a new but comparatively modest campus in the same location,[6] and adopted the name San Francisco Institute of Art.[7]

In 1916, the SFAA merged with the San Francisco Society of Artists and assumed directorship of the San Francisco Museum of Art at the Palace of Fine Arts, which was established to host the 1915 World's Fair, Panama–Pacific International Exposition. In addition, the school was renamed the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) to better reflect its mission to promote, develop and preserve regional art and culture. In 1926 the school moved to 800 Chestnut Street, which remained the school's main campus. In 1930 Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was hired to paint The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, which is located in the student-directed art gallery.

During its first 60 years, influential artists associated with the school included Eadweard Muybridge, photographer and pioneer of motion graphics; Maynard Dixon, painter of San Francisco's labor movement and of the landscape of the West; Henry Kiyama, whose Four Immigrants Manga was the first graphic novel published in the U.S.; Sargent Claude Johnson, one of the first African-American artists from California to achieve a national reputation; Louise Dahl-Wolfe, an innovative photographer whose work for Harper's Bazaar in the 1930s defined a new American style of "environmental" fashion photography; Gutzon Borglum, the creator of the large-scale public sculpture known as Mount Rushmore; Rudolf Hess, German Expressionist painter and art critic, Emily Carr, Modernist Canadian painter well known for her work with indigenous culture,[8] and numerous others.

After World War II ended (1945) the school became a nucleus for Abstract Expressionism, with faculty including Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Clay Spohn. Although painting and sculpture remained the dominant mediums for many years, photography had also been among the course offerings. In 1946 Ansel Adams and Minor White established the first fine-art photography department, with Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange among its instructors. In 1947 distinguished filmmaker Sydney Peterson began the first film courses at CSFA. In this spirit of advancement, in 1949 CSFA Director Douglas MacAgy organized an international conference, The Western Roundtable on Modern Art, which included Marcel Duchamp, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gregory Bateson. The roundtable aimed to expose “hidden assumptions” and to frame new questions about art.

By the early 1950s, San Francisco's North Beach had become the West Coast center of the Beat Movement, and music, poetry, and discourse were an intrinsic part of artists' lives. Collage artist Jess Collins renounced a career as a plutonium developer and enrolled at SFAI as a painting student. In 1953 he and his partner, poet Robert Duncan, along with painter Harry Jacobus, started the King Ubu Gallery, an important alternative space for art, poetry, and music.

A distinctly Californian modern art soon emerged that fused abstraction, figuration, narrative, and jazz. SFAI faculty David Park, Elmer Bischoff, James Weeks, James Kelly,[9] Frank Lobdell,[10] and Richard Diebenkorn were now the leaders of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, informed by their experience of seeing local museum exhibitions of work by Edvard Munch, Max Beckmann, Edgar Degas, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Students at the school, including David Simpson, John Hultberg, William T. Wiley, Robert Hudson, William Allan, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Carlos Villa, and Wally Hedrick, continued the investigation of new ideas and new materials, many becoming the core of the Funk art movement.

San Francisco Art Institute roof with art students painting and drawing
San Francisco Art Institute roof

Renamed San Francisco Art Institute in 1961, SFAI rejected the distinction between fine and applied arts. SFAI stood at the forefront of recognizing an expanded vocabulary of art-making that hybridized many practices including performance, conceptual art, new media, graphic arts, typography, and political and social documentary.

Students in the early to mid-1960s included artists Ronald Davis, Robert Graham, Forrest Myers, Leo Valledor, Michael Heizer, Ronnie Landfield, Peter Reginato, Gary Stephan, and John Duff and in the late 1960s Annie Leibovitz, who would soon begin photographing for Rolling Stone magazine; Paul McCarthy, well known for his performance and sculpture works; and Charles Bigelow, who would be among the first typographers to design fonts for computers. Alumni Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones documented the early days of the Black Panther Party in northern California.

In 1969, a new addition to the building by Paffard Keatinge-Clay added 22,500 sq ft (2,090 m2) of studio space, a large theater/lecture hall, an outdoor amphitheater, galleries, and a cafe.[11]

Installation art, video, music, and social activism continued to inform much of the work of faculty and students in the 1970s and 1980s. The faculty during this period included George Kuchar, Gunvor Nelson, Howard Fried, Paul Kos, Angela Davis, Kathy Acker, Robert Colescott, and many other influential artists and writers. Among the students were a number of performance artists and musicians, including Karen Finley, whose performances challenged notions of femininity and political power, and Prairie Prince and Michael Cotten, who presented their first performance as the Tubes in the SFAI lecture hall, and became pioneers in the field of music video. The school became a hub for the Punk music scene, with bands such as the Mutants, the Avengers, and Romeo Void all started by SFAI students. Technology also became part of art practice: faculty Sharon Grace's Send/Receive project used satellite communications to create an interactive transcontinental performance, while Survival Research Laboratories, founded by student Mark Pauline, began staging large-scale outdoor performances of ritualized interactions among machines, robots, and pyrotechnics.

Since the 1990s the studio and classroom have become increasingly connected to the world via public art and community actions. As students at SFAI, Barry McGee, Aaron Noble, and Rigo 23, among others, were part of the movement known as the Mission School, taking their graffiti-inspired art to the streets and walls of the city. Faculty and students have created site-specific projects in locations from the San Francisco waterfront (Ann Chamberlain and Walter Hood's monument to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, Mexico (a sculpture by artist Pedro Reyes and SFAI students for the U.S. Department of State's Art in Embassies program). Organizations like Artists' Television Access (ATA) and Root Division, founded by alumni, and SFAI's City Studio program engage and educate local communities and cultivate a vital artistic ecosystem.[12]

The school's history was recognized in 2016, when its campus was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[13]


Due to financial mismanagement, declining enrollment, high real estate costs, and a reliance on income from campus property rentals, which was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,[14] the school announced on March 23, 2020, that it would stop accepting new students for the following fall semester.[15] The institute marked its 149th birthday on Thursday, March 26, 2020, shortly after failed merger talks.[16]

They briefly announced the cancelation of the fall 2020 semester[17] before reversing their decision and allowing for online and offline classes through the 2020–21 school year.[18] In July 2020, after securing $4 million in donations, the board and administration announced an agreement had been reached to retain all tenured faculty for the coming academic year, resulting in the continuation of courses for the following academic year and the reinstatement of the degree program for those within a year of graduation.[19]

In February 2022 the University of San Francisco and SFAI announced that they were studying an acquisition of SFAI by USF;[20] however USF backed out of the deal in July. SFAI ceased its degree programs but announced it would remain as "a nonprofit organization to protect its name, archives, and legacy".[21] On July 16, 2022, the school closed permanently.[22]

On April 26, 2023, the San Francisco Art Institute filed for Chapter 7 liquidation.[23] The campus was put up for sale in late June, with an announcement that Diego Rivera's mural in the Diego Rivera Gallery, The Making of a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City, with an assessed value of $50 million, would be sold as part of the property unless no satisfactory offer is received, in which case it might be available for separate sale.[24]

In late February 2024, a nonprofit corporation endowed by Laurene Powell Jobs bought the campus including the mural for approximately $30 million, with the stated intention of continuing its use as an arts institution, plus possible on-campus housing for artists in residence.[25]


SFAI offered Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA), Master of Arts (MA), and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees. SFAI also offered Low-Residency MFAs and Post-Baccalaureate certificates in Studio Art.


Founded by Ansel Adams in 1945, the Photography Department became the first program of its kind dedicated to exploring photography as a fine-art medium.[citation needed] Adams designed the school's darkrooms and attracted photographers for the original faculty, including Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Minor White, and Morley Baer, who became Head of the Department after White's departure in 1953.


Throughout the SFAI Painting Department's history, it had been home to celebrated artists such as Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn, Jay DeFeo, Fred Martin, Bruce McGaw, Elmer Bischoff, David Park, David Simpson, Frank Lobdell, Roy De Forest, Joan Brown, Ronald Davis, William T. Wiley, Toba Khedoori, Barry McGee, Inez Storer and Kehinde Wiley among others and was central to movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Bay Area Figuration, Color Field, California Funk, and the Mission School.

New Genres[edit]

Howard Fried founded the performance and video department (now New Genres) at the San Francisco Art Institute. In the late 1970s, a long-lost collection of Eadweard Muybridge photographs was found and an auction of the materials financed the creation of the department — and the purchase of two Portopak cameras. (More than a century before, the English artist had presented the first ever public showing of moving pictures on campus and apparently left something behind.)


Among the many artist musicians who studied at SFAI are Jerry Garcia, guitarist in Grateful Dead; Dave Getz, drummer for Big Brother and the Holding Company and Country Joe and the Fish; Prairie Prince of The Tubes; Debora Iyall of Romeo Void; Freddy (aka Fritz) of the Mutants; Penelope Houston of the Avengers, Courtney Love, actress and rock musician;[26] Jonathan Holland of Tussle; Devendra Banhart.


In summer 2010, SFAI moved its housing program to two locations in Nob Hill: Sutter Hall at 717 Sutter Street, and Abby Hall at 630 Geary Street. In spring 2020, the housing program was dissolved due to financial exigency.

Exhibitions and public programs[edit]

Students were given direct access to exhibitions, lectures, symposia, films, and other unique interdisciplinary events. An integral part of campus life, such events connected students to the larger community of artists, art, and contemporary ideas. The Walter and McBean Galleries (on the 800 Chestnut Street campus) house exhibitions, workshops, and other alternative and experimental avenues for presenting work by international contemporary artists. Students also had the opportunity to display their work in a number of spots on SFAI's two campuses, including the Diego Rivera Gallery.[27]

Adaline Kent Award[edit]

Former board member (1947–1957), Adaline Kent was a sculptor and alumni of the school. Upon her death in 1957, she bequeathed $10,000 for the establishment of an annual award for a promising California Artist.[28] Each year since 1957 the prize was awarded by the San Francisco Art Institute Artists' Committee. Winners included Ron Nagle (1978),[29] Wally Hedrick (1985),[30] Mildred Howard (1991), Clare Rojas (2004),[31] and as the final award, Scott Williams[32] (2005).

Notable people including alumni and faculty[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "City of San Francisco Designated Landmarks". City of San Francisco. Retrieved October 21, 2012.
  2. ^ "San Francisco Art Institute". National Center for Education Statistics. 2021. Retrieved May 16, 2021.
  3. ^ "Dora Norton Williams: Friend of Robert Louis Stevenson - FoundSF". foundsf.org. Retrieved June 26, 2017.
  4. ^ http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/cara/ucb/text/Cara_Volume_04.pdf#168 [bare URL PDF]
  5. ^ "California Historical Landmark #754: Site of Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco". noehill.com. Retrieved June 26, 2017.
  6. ^ Dobbin, Hamilton Henry. "California Art Institute, California Street 1908. [graphic]". csl.primo.exlibrisgroup.com. Retrieved July 19, 2023. Caption written on photo: "Cal Art Institute, California Street, 1908." Text written underneath: "Building "California Art Institute." Present site of Mark Hopkins Hotel. Looking from Pine and Mason Street. Photo 1908." Photo shows the south side of the Art Institute, a two-story building with bulging bay windows and flying the American flag. The sloping hillside below the building shows the terracing and landscaping done when the old Mark Hopkins mansion occupied the site. This includes the rather Medieval looking gate at the corner in the foreground, the door of which is plastered with posters advertising Kolb Dill in "Higgledy Piggledy" on Monday, May 6. The roof of the Fairmont Hotel can be seen behind the Art Institute.
  7. ^ "1906 Earthquake and Fire Destruction of the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art". www.sfmuseum.org. Retrieved June 26, 2017.
  8. ^ Baldissera, Lisa (2015). Emily Carr: Life & Work. Art Canada Institute. ISBN 978-1-4871-0044-5.
  9. ^ "James Kelly -- S.F. abstract expressionist". sfgate.com. July 6, 2003. Retrieved June 26, 2017.
  10. ^ "Frank Lobdell, influential Bay Area painter, dies". sfgate.com. December 19, 2013. Retrieved June 26, 2017.
  11. ^ "History of SFAI- San Francisco Art Institute". sfai.edu. Archived from the original on August 10, 2007. Retrieved June 26, 2017.
  12. ^ "sfai history - San Francisco Art Institute". sfai.edu. Archived from the original on December 14, 2012. Retrieved June 26, 2017.
  13. ^ "Weekly List of Actions, 1/04/16 through 1/08/16". National Park Service. Retrieved January 22, 2016.
  14. ^ Hotchkiss, Sarah (April 10, 2020). "The San Francisco Art Institute Will Never Be What it Once Was". KQED. Retrieved June 27, 2020.
  15. ^ Whiting, Sam (March 23, 2020). "Datebook: San Francisco Art Institute considering canceling its fall semester". The San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved October 24, 2020.
  16. ^ Moench, Mallory (June 13, 2020). "Art Institute marks birthday in turmult". The San Francisco Chronicle.
  17. ^ Greenberger, Alex (April 2, 2020). "In Open Letter, San Francisco Art Institute's Potential Closure Is Mourned by Bay Area Scene". ARTnews.com. Retrieved April 4, 2020.
  18. ^ Whitford, Emma (April 28, 2020). "San Francisco Art Institute Will Remain Open, Board Says". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved April 28, 2020.
  19. ^ Bishara, Hakim (July 24, 2020). "After Securing $4M in Donations, San Francisco Art Institute Will Remain Operational". Hyperallergic. Retrieved October 23, 2020.
  20. ^ Barmann, Jay (February 2, 2022). "USF Announces Plans to Acquire and Merge With the Financially Troubled San Francisco Art Institute". SFist. Archived from the original on February 2, 2022. Retrieved February 2, 2022.
  21. ^ Whiting, Sam (July 15, 2022). "151-year-old S.F. Art Institute will shut down after USF backs out of acquisition deal". The San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved July 16, 2022.
  22. ^ Dafoe, Taylor (July 19, 2022). "The 151-Year-Old San Francisco Art Institute Has Closed for Good After Failed Attempts to Save the Financially Moribund School: The fate of the museum's famed 1930 Diego Rivera fresco, however, remains to be determined". Artnet. Retrieved July 19, 2022.
  23. ^ Mauhay-Moore, Sam (April 26, 2023). "San Francisco Art Institute files for bankruptcy". SFGate. Retrieved April 27, 2023.
  24. ^ McLean, Tessa (June 27, 2023). "SF Art Institute campus listed for sale after bankruptcy". SFGate. Retrieved July 3, 2023.
  25. ^ Waxmann, Laura (February 29, 2024). "Exclusive: S.F. Art Institute bought by nonprofit backed by Laurene Powell Jobs. Here's their plan". San Francisco Chronicle.
  26. ^ "Entertainment Weekly, 1994: The Power of Love". Archived from the original on November 3, 2014. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
  27. ^ ""Exhibitions and Public Programs." San Francisco Art Institute website". sfai.edu. Archived from the original on September 19, 2010. Retrieved June 26, 2017.
  28. ^ ""Adeline Kent, 1924" San Francisco Art Institute website". sfai.edu. Archived from the original on December 20, 2010. Retrieved June 26, 2017.
  29. ^ (NAGLE, RON) Brown, Sylvia (June 26, 1978). RON NAGLE: 1978 ADELINE KENT AWARD EXHIBITION. San Francisco Art Institute. Retrieved June 26, 2017 – via Amazon.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  30. ^ Hedrick, Wally; Rubin, David S.; Hopps, Walter (June 26, 1985). Wally Hedrick: Selected works : Adaline Kent Award exhibition, April 10-May 11, 1985. San Francisco Art Institute. ISBN 0930495004.
  31. ^ "Anglim Gilbert Gallery". www.gallerypauleanglim.com. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015. Retrieved June 26, 2017.
  32. ^ "Scott Williams at the SF Art Institute - Stencil Archive". www.stencilarchive.org. Retrieved June 26, 2017.

External links[edit]