SAN FRANCISCO — Christopher Burch was working on his mural, “Icarus Reinterpreted,” in his native St. Louis, when Leila Weefur got in touch with him to see if he was interested in creating a mural for the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)’s 150th anniversary show, curated by Weefur and Margaret Tedesco.

Burch says he is honored to be included in the show, titled A Spirit of Disruption, which opens on Friday, March 19. He’s working on a 20-by-seven-foot mural that will depict figures in a flowery landscape with surreal images of transformation, which will be on the outside of one of the school’s buildings.

Burch says his time at SFAI taught him a lot — like how to present his ideas, do research, and work with rigor. He’s excited to be in the show with some of his mentors, like Dewey Crumpler, and he loves that disruption is the theme.

“I think that SFAI is in a lot of ways a microorganism of American politics of wealth and power,” Burch said. “I had imposter syndrome when I was there. There were only two other Black people, and coming from St. Louis, I had culture shock. I was entering into a space of power and people groomed to exist in that power, and that can be alienating.”

The anniversary show comes at a time when the school has been under a particular spotlight. After being destabilized by debt, SFAI has taken controversial moves, including laying off staff and teachers last March at the beginning of the pandemic and telling students not to enroll for the fall semester. The board chair talked about selling the school’s 1931 Diego Rivera mural to raise money, and last July the school technically defaulted on millions in loans. The University of California Regents assumed that debt in the fall.

The conversation has oscillated between trying to save a school that has been important to artists — SFAI has had a huge influence on contemporary art movements such as Bay Area Figuration, Color Field, and the Mission School — to disillusionment with where things have gotten to.

A Spirit of Disruption curators Margaret Tedesco and Leila Weefur at SFAI’s historic Chestnut Campus (2020) (photo by Alex Peterson, courtesy San Francisco Art Institute)

Weefur and Tedesco have been working on A Spirit of Disruption since November 2019, just shortly before problems started to really escalate at the school. When asked to comment on SFAI’s current state of affairs, they stated, “This exhibition is focusing on celebrating the history of the institution and prioritizing untold stories from those who haven’t historically been included or made visible, that is our focus as curators.”

A Spirit of Disruption spans from the 1960s to the present with the earliest work coming from a special section dedicated to Florence Wysinger Allen, known as Flo, a civil rights activist and legendary artist model who was the subject of many paintings, sculptures, and drawings made at the school from 1933 to 1997. The show has four components: work on the walls and sculpture; media in the round with more than 200 video and film artists; a section on activism and politics; and a 10-episode podcast.  

Miguel Calderón, “Pantalla Hypnótica” (2018), four projector screens, various sizes (image courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City)

“There’s so much we discovered in this process, and we wanted to share it with the school and sort of archive a new history,” Weefur said. “It was important for us to not just reiterate the same old history of SFAI. For me, that meant all the famous white painter dudes.”

The pandemic made curating challenging, since neither could visit the library or the school or do studio visits. But Tedesco, an employee of the school for 30 years, including in the communications department, had an extensive collection of archival material at her gallery 2nd Floor Projects

“I spent 20 of my years with the school scanning and making printed materials for the school,” she said. “So when COVID hit us hard, and we no longer could really go up to the campus, I had duplicates and triplicates of printed matter.”

Haein Kang, “Wind from Nowhere” (2019), 53 x 30 x 18 inches each, data-driven sound installation. Mechanically reproduces the moment when leaves gently rustle along with the wind blowing through the trees. The title derives from Samuel Butler’s novel, Erewhon. (image courtesy artist, supported by DXARTS, special thanks to Richard Karpen)

Tedesco shared those with Weefur, who says a lot of the work for the show came from looking through this ephemera and flipping through catalogues. One of the artists they found this way was Haein Kang, whose piece “Wind from Nowhere” (2019) will be in the show.

“We absolutely fell in love with it,” Weefur said. “It’s this eight-piece sculptural sound installation of small pieces of paper that move with this blowing wind sound.”

Leo Valledor, “Ghost Ring” (1968), acrylic on canvas, 60-inch diameter (image courtesy Estate of the Artist and Brian Gross Fine Art)

Other pieces in the show include the minimalist “Ghost Ring” (1968) by Filipino-American painter Leo Valledor, and the epic four-screen installation “Pantalla Hypnotica” (2018) by Mexican artist Miguel Calderón. Cathy Lu, a ceramicist in Oakland who studied sculpture at SFAI, also has work in A Spririt of Disruption. Her piece “Customs Declaration” (2019), a big net made out of ceramic fruit, will hang in the front of the gallery.

Lu loved her time at SFAI, which she says challenged her and made her braver in her art. Now a teacher at Mills College and California College of the Arts, she sees her experience there in a little bit of a different light. 

“My teachers were great, but they were almost all older white men,” she said. “Now that I’m an educator, I see that’s not unique to SFAI. I’ve worked with students of color, and I think I see them in ways I wasn’t seen.”

A Spirit of Disruption, curated by Margaret Tedesco and Leila Weefur, opens at the Walter and McBean Galleries and Diego Rivera Gallery (San Francisco Art Institute, Chestnut Campus) on March 19 and continues through July 3.

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...