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Renowned San Francisco Art Institute Is Closing Due to Rocky Finances

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students learned that the institution does not plan to reopen in the fall.

Diego Rivera, “Making a Fresco” (1931) at SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery (via Joaquín Martínez/Flickr)

Facing the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities across the United States have emptied their classrooms, switching to remote learning and evicting students from their dormitories in an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus strain. But students at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) now find themselves in an even more precarious position, as the school plans to close indefinitely after this semester.

Following months of uncertainty, yesterday, March 23, administrators of the famed art school announced the school “has no clear path to admit a class of new students for the fall of 2020.”

On March 16, along with five other Bay Area counties, San Francisco became the first area of the US to enter a shelter in place order to contain the spread of COVID-19. Months away from its 150th anniversary, and with its endowment in precarious straits, SFAI had spent past months attempting to merge or collaborate with a more financially secure Bay Area institution. (KQED reports that the local community speculated one of the institutions in talks to merge with SFAI was the University of San Francisco, a nearby private Jesuit university; SFAI declined to comment on this information to Hyperallergic.)

Signed by President Gordon Knox and Board of Trustees Chair Pam Rorke Levy, an email to the SFAI community explains the school’s leadership “has been aggressively pursuing a number of strategies that would ensure long-term financial sustainability for our school,” but that they “reached an impasse this past week, in no small measure due to the unanticipated hardships and uncertainty wrought by the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Given our current financial situation, and what we expect to be a precipitous decline in enrollment due to the pandemic, we are now considering the suspension of our regular courses and degree programs starting immediately after graduation in May of this year,” Knox and Rorke Levy wrote. The school will continue virtual education through the spring, and graduating BFA, MFA, and MA students will receive their degrees as planned. However, the administrators encouraged students not eligible to graduate this semester to quickly “pursue placement at another school.” In an email to Hyperallergic, Rorke Levy explained that the school has approximately 300 students (roughly 100 graduate and 200 graduate), 97 of whom are eligible to graduate in May. 

Meanwhile, the school confirmed that its 92 faculty members have begun to receive WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act notices, which are legally required to be sent to employees 60 days in advance of a mass layoff, but “that does not mean they are being laid off.”

Rorke Levy continued, “As of now we have laid off six staff (non-faculty) under special COVID-19 provisions for employees whose jobs cannot continue given the current shelter-in-place restrictions — they work at the campus which is now closed.  Per the new provisions of the law they were able to qualify for unemployment immediately.”

Rorke Levy explained that the school’s present debt is roughly $19 million, but “that number is likely to go up in the coming months as the effects of COVID-19 are felt on the operating budget.”

SFAI counts a host of notable artists, musicians, and filmmakers as alumni, including Kehinde Wiley, Jerry Garcia, Annie Leibovitz, and Kathryn Bigelow. It also boasts a fresco by quintessential Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, which was painted at the school in 1931 and remains one of just three in the city. Appraised at $54 million, Rorke Levy explained that the school hopes “to keep the mural where it has always been at our Chestnut Street campus, and to build an endowment for its on-going preservation and public display.”

“It presents a dilemma that many small, cash-strapped colleges and museums face: is it better to hang on to a valuable work of art, or sell it and put it to work on behalf of our students and patrons?” she continued. “Our mural has been mounted on the wall in such a way that it could be removed and sold, and particularly given the current interest in Rivera and the other Mexican artists of his era, it would undoubtedly fetch an attractive price that would help us offer a world-class arts education to generations of students who couldn’t afford it otherwise. Those are the kinds of trade-offs we at the leadership level are constantly weighing.”

Editor’s note 3/24/2020 7:02pm EDT: This article has been updated to include comments from Pam Rorke Levy.

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