The closing of the San Francisco Art Institute: “The artists can go hang themselves”

The announcement in mid-July that the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) would cease operations, no longer offering courses or degrees, is a significant and telling event.

Whatever the concrete circumstances and whichever individuals or bodies may bear some degree of responsibility, the shuttering of the once renowned school is a further sign—in the broadest sense—that, in the eyes of the American elite ruling, as we noted in April 2021 In regard to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, “the artists can go hang themselves.”

The situation is extraordinary. Not only was the SFAI one of the oldest art academies in the US, and the oldest in its Western half, it was located in one of the most dynamic cultural centers in the country historically, the Bay Area. In fact, the institute was a focal point of various artistic trends and movements in the 20th century. Now it has disappeared, without substantial outcry or protest, certainly not from the city’s affluent upper echelons.

San Francisco Art Institute (Photo credit–Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

In their July 15 announcement, Art Institute officials explained that after “many years of austerity measures, challenging fundraising campaigns, and various on and off merger and acquisition negotiations… SFAI is no longer financially viable and has ceased its degree programs as of July 15, 2022. SFAI will remain a nonprofit organization to protect its name, archives, and legacy.”

The school’s press release, written with a degree of bitterness, noted that as of July 16 “no students or employees will fill SFAI’s historic landmark campus, a beautiful and unique spot in San Francisco with its glorious Diego Rivera fresco … Instead, a few contractors will manage security, regulatory, legal, and financial matters, and ensure that students and alumni can access their academic records.”

According to the SFAI’s own historical account, “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 US; 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; John Gutzon Borglum, the creator of the large-scale public sculpture known as Mt. Rushmore; and numerous others.”

Following World War II, “the school became a nucleus for Abstract Expressionism.” The first fine art photography department in the US was established at the SFAI in 1946. “By the early 1950s, San Francisco’s North Beach was the West Coast center of the Beat Movement, and music, poetry, and discourse were an intrinsic part of artists ‘ lives.’



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