Catherine Opie delivering a speech at the San Francisco Art Institute commencement ceremony, after receiving an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts (screenshot by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic)

Like many colleges and universities around the country, the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) could never have imagined it would be celebrating commencement online this year. Much less, however, did it imagine that it could be the 150-year-old institution’s last commencement ever.

In late March, the SFAI said that it might close its doors permanently this year. The school had already been financially struggling in recent years and was seeking to merge with another institution. When the pandemic hit, it simply “reached an impasse,” as President Gordon Knox and Board of Trustees Chair Pam Rorke Levy wrote in an email to the SFAI community.

Since then, the institution says it has received an “outpouring of support” and is looking to operate “in a leaner, more focused manner.” Starting in the fall, it plans to continue offering art classes and public education programs, but will be “suspending degree programs.”

This new reality weighed palpably on the online commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 16. Two illustrious alumni, artists Catherine Opie and Nao Bustamante, were bestowed with an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts and delivered poignant speeches. Bustamente, wearing a lovely crown of leaves around her head and neck, gave two pieces of advice: “Don’t be an asshole” and “follow the love.”

Opie, who emphasized how “unfathomable” it was to her that an institution like SFAI could close, said: “We can’t think of the potential closing of this institution as the death of the institution.” She went on to honor historical moments at SFAI, including it being the first place where Eadweard Muybridge ever showed the “Zoöpraxiscope.”

Nao Bustamante delivering a speech at the San Francisco Art Institute commencement ceremony, after receiving an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts (screenshot by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic)

Shara Mays, who graduated this year, was moved by the alumni’s words. “We’re all heartbroken that SFAI may permanently close its doors, but Catherine framed the closure and the future in a way that makes sense… advising us to continue the rich legacy that SFAI has given us,” Mays said.

Another graduating student, evan pettiglio, observed of the commencement, “It felt a bit like watching the finale episode of your favorite TV show; extremely bittersweet, something you will probably rewatch throughout your life.”

Also devastating for students was having their MFA exhibition — their culminating project before graduating — canceled. Like many other art schools, SFAI decided to host the exhibition online. According to one student, T Shell, some were disappointed that students weren’t able to give more input into how this would look, and they would’ve hoped for a “real live virtual exhibition space.”

Mónica Coelho, Guideline series #5, (2019), mix media drawing and cyanotype on paper, 11 x 9 inches. “I started by exploring waiting spaces and moments, as well as gestures of hope,” Coelho writes in her artist statement “I realized that waiting and hoping come from the same verb in Portuguese, Esperar.”

Graduate Mónica Coelho echoed the frustration that the school didn’t collaborate with the students, and added, “there was no time to think about what would it mean to present work like this. Or to prepare work for this format.” Coelho is one of many students who had to change at the last-minute which artwork to display for her MFA show — originally, she was going to install a complex installation of metal boxes that would’ve collected water from the San Francisco bay. “Presenting pictures online is not a great solution to present my work,” Coelho wrote over email. In the end, she chose to share work from her Guideline Series, in which she reflects on “waiting spaces” through delicate cyanotypes of what appear like ghostly chairs.

In a trend that I’ve observed across online MFA shows, some students decided to make work specifically in response to the pandemic. Hansen Yang, for instance, made a video in which he interviewed Chinese international students during the early days of the pandemic; many of these students planned to return home, only to have their flights canceled.

The SFAI website essentially presents student work as a slideshow, with accompanying artist statements and links to the artists’ websites should visitors wish to explore further. “We felt that this format provided a deeper viewing experience for the work of each graduating artist now entering the world as a professional artist,” said Zeina Barakeh, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs.

It’s not the most sophisticated presentation, for sure, but you can still get a sense for the artists’ work. And, based on the MFA shows I’ve perused thus far, SFAI’s presents some of the most compelling projects. Below are a few highlights from the graduating class, which could end up being the last, and therefore historic, class of SFAI.

Shara Mays, “Roped Burden” (2020), mixed media, dimensions variable. “My work is autobiographical, yet the questions it suggests are deconstructed into a nuanced universal discourse, provoking larger discussions around race, identity politics, and our culture at-large.”

evan pettiglio, “i can only hold what i can reach” (2019), textile, stone, wallpaper, handwritten notes, house key, and resin, 60 inches x variable. “How may we honor memory and release memory simultaneously? Concerned with the connections between memory, trauma and domestic spaces my work deifies tangible objects representative of the pain and joy contained in our ability to remember. My work is an entry point to vivid narratives strewn with a quiet urgency; a profound need to venerate the residue of the past.”

Mareiwa Miller, “Who Holds Whom?” (2019), metal, medium, transfer image, textile, and spray paint, dimensions variable

Liu Sang Chi, “Satellite” (2019), video, 3:43 minutes. “The artist made a long pole connecting a camera with their body and walked around the city of San Francisco, in order to observe their own behaviors and the behaviors of those around them.”

Sequinette, “Dressing Ruminations” (2019), 16-millimeter film. “Cinema always distorts perspective and gender is always performed. As a queer femme drag artist who uses film, performance and installation I rely on elaborate costuming, makeup, sets and narratives involving over the top tropes of femininity to produce luxurious fantasy on stage and screen. Dreamy, magical queer worlds are created with DIY strategies and analogue special effects using the elements of artifice not as a “mask” but as an exposure of truth.”

Rebecca Sexton, “Intangible Embrace” (2019), douglas fir trunk, fragmented coastal redwood trunk, the artist’s body, photographic print on chiffon, 36 x 48 x 24 inches. “I explore a form of understanding with the land, while also coming to terms with my particular positionality as a descendent of colonizers and loggers.”

T Shell, “Camera 5-March 8th-1:31PM” (2020), performance still. “Utilizing performance, video, sculpture, and sound I manifest personal traumas. […] I position the witness in the middle of these installations leaving them to grapple with my body as I exhaust myself past my limit through durational action.”

The San Francisco Art Institute’s 2020 MFA Exhibition continues online through June 20. 

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Elisa Wouk Almino

Elisa Wouk Almino is a senior editor at Hyperallergic. She is based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.