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

The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), which fell into economic hardship in recent years, announced Wednesday, February 2, that it was initiating processes to integrate with the University of San Francisco (USF), with the merger expected to be complete by the fall. It will be known as the San Francisco Art Institute at the University of San Francisco, abbreviated “SFAI@USF.” 

The agreement specifies that USF will take possession of SFAI’s buildings, art and film collections, and “assets” such as the premises of SFAI’s Chestnut Street campus — which includes the Diego Rivera Gallery and a mural painted by the eponymous artist. Over a year ago, that mural, valued at $50 million, made headlines when the board of the cash-strapped school considered selling it off. Activism among adjunct faculty and alumni succeeded in pressuring the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to endow the mural with landmark status, halting its sale.

The San Francisco Art Institute (Zee Jenks/Flickr)

Leaders at both schools have signed an official letter of intent “to explore integrating operations and academic programs in the arts to elevate the next generation of artists,” according to a joint statement. Trustees at SFAI and USF have approved the agreement, and now a period of due diligence follows, which will involve a comprehensive financial review and logistical planning around academic accreditation. The two organizations also emphasized that students currently enrolled at SFAI will finish their degrees at USF and will for all intents and purposes be USF students, receiving “the same academic and co-curricular services, opportunities, and support.”

The merger comes after years of financial and organizational disarray at SFAI. A storied school of contemporary fine art that has played host to illustrious artists such as Ansel Adams, Angela Davis, Mark Rothko, and Kehinde Wiley, it had in recent years accumulated over $19 million in debt from exorbitant building projects and declining enrollment. In March 2020, things got so dire that SFAI laid off most of its faculty and staff and suspended fall enrollment. Last January, chairwoman Pam Rorke Levy resigned from her position.

“After months of confrontation, negotiation, triumph, strategy, gratitude, hope and elation we find ourselves joining with another organization that realizes the depth of our contribution and the confluence of our ideals,” said Lonnie Graham, SFAI’s current chairman. “This merger will help to ensure the continuation of our school and the contribution of our students.”

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University. Find her on