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SFAI Opens New Fort Mason Campus


View from the "upper deck" of SFAI | Fort Mason, repurposed for art and education by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, SF

San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) has glimpsed the future and it’s downhill.  Literally. From its vertiginous perch at 800 Chestnut St., on the North Beach side of Russian Hill that SFAI has called home since 1926, students and visitors have enjoyed smashing views of the Bay, and, more significantly, exhibitions, lectures, seminars and performances by a group of artists and scholars whose names, when tallied across the institution’s 146-year history, read like a who’s who of modern and contemporary art.  Now, with the opening of a new 67,000-square-foot facility on the waterfront at Fort Mason Center, those views – and the public’s ability to engage with SFAI’s programs  – will soon be enhanced.


The $50 million project, which opened to students August 28, involved an extensive renovation of historic Pier 2.  Built by the U.S. Army as a working dock in 1911, it became, during WWII, the conduit for two-thirds of the supplies shipped to U.S. troops in the Pacific Theater.  Repurposed for art and education by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, the facility – a partnership between SFAI, Fort Mason Foundation and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area — gives SFAI a long-awaited and much-needed second campus. It includes: 160 art studios, 3,300 square feet of flexible public exhibition space, including the flagship Atrium gallery; a grad student-run exhibition space; Grey Box, a media and performance room; a woodshop and fabrication facility; installation and seminar rooms; a digital media suite; a student lounge; and an amphitheater for public events.  


SFAI will not be abandoning its landmark Chestnut Street campus; all of the educational activities presently going on there will continue.  What it hopes to gain from Fort Mason, in addition to space to accommodate more students, is foot traffic, something it’s never had on Chestnut St.  Fort Mason attracts 1.2 million visitors to cultural events offered by some 20 nonprofit organizations.  The hope is that a good many of them will find their way to SFAI, perhaps for the first time.  Some may also discover SFAI’s annual MFA exhibit, a showcase for fresh talent, which, over the past few years, has been held downtown at the Old Mint.  Others may simply marvel at the makeover of the old Pier 2.


In keeping with preservationist mandates, the exterior of the structure was left intact. The surprise is how closely the interior resembles the Minnesota Street Project (MSP), the development created in Dogpatch to provide affordable space to galleries in danger of being priced out of SF.   Both venues are long, rectangular, light-suffused industrial warehouses, designed and outfitted so that public and private spaces mesh seamlessly, all the while retaining the sight lines and overall feel of the original structures.  Both have staircases running up the center that enable amphitheater-style seating.  Railing, on the upper-tier walkways of the SFAI building, with its supports of metal mesh, virtually dissolves into the space from many vantage points, as does an overhead bridge connecting two banks of studios.  A dramatic mural wall at the top of the stairs is currently occupied by a massive painting created on-site by alumna Alicia McCarthy, whose work is also currently on display in the SECA Awards show at SFMOMA.  This, too, echoes MSP’s practice of rotating select works through in its public spaces and devoting entire rooms to exhibitions organized by guest curators and gallerists.


Alicia McCarthy, Untitled, 2017, spray paint on marine grade plywood; 186 x 186"

In all of this one senses further evidence of the seismic shifts that have swept SF in recent years: the emphasis on community building, on the expansion of dialog, and on a move away from traditional centers (read: Geary St.) toward new areas that are now fast becoming established centers unto themselves.  These shifts reflect a 21st century focus on new ways of looking at and making art, and on a broader role for social interaction and public engagement.   


The weekend of November 10 and 11 marks the public opening of the new facility.  Festivities include: an exhibition of work by more than a dozen SFAI alumni; open studios, offering a chance to see the work of over 160 emerging artists; and a special edition of the institute’s annual Concentrate: an Uncommon Art Sale + Festival that gives visitors the opportunity to purchase student artworks and participate in a host of art-related activities at both SFAI campuses.  


Michael Jones McKean, The Rainbow, 2012

Upcoming artist-in-residence: Michael Jones McKean will be the Harker Award resident this fall, followed in 2018 by The Rainbow, a man-made version of the real thing, to be installed permanently at SFAI | Fort Mason.  (An earlier version appeared at Beamis Center for Contemporary Arts in 2012.)  Also coming next spring: the collective Postcommodity (noted by Mark Van Proyen in his review of Documenta 14) and a re-installation of Bill Fontana’s Landscape Sculpture With Fog Horns (1981).  The piece consists of a recording of foghorns from around the San Francisco Bay that was originally broadcast in the same location as SFAI|Fort Mason.

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Click here for more information about SFAI|Fort Mason.

Read past reviews of SFAI exhibitions.

SFAI | Fort Mason Photos: Bruce Damonte

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