by Mark Van Proyen
“This school was always haunted.” “You could always feel the ghosts at this place.” That is what made it interesting.” These are some of the many sorrowful words that have been passed around on social media in response to the announcement that the San Francisco Art Institute will be closing its doors for the foreseeable future. The announcement was released a week after the Ides of March, with the COVID-19 quarantine being the last straw to break the school’s fragile economic back. Because of the quarantine, the school is in lockdown through May, but it is not permanently closed, and as of this writing, there are some faint indications of a grassroots effort to revive it. But all of the relevant unions have been informed that mass layoffs are underway, and both current and prospective students have been told to look elsewhere to fulfill their educational needs, so it is fair to assume that the school will not resume any operation at least until the fall of 2021, presumably taking a form that will be very different from the one with which we are familiar. And by using the term “we,” I am referring to the students, staff and faculty who have kept time with this remarkable school.
Such a significant change would not be unprecedented. Before 1961, SFAI was called the California School of Fine Arts, and it operated under that banner for over four decades. Shaky finances were the reason for the change of name and business-entity status. With it came a capital campaign that led to the construction of a new building that opened in 1969 made possible by swelling enrollments that came part
and parcel with San Francisco’s central position as a late 1960s youth culture destination, augmented by scores of Vietnam veterans partaking of their GI Bill benefits. That was not the first time that the school functioned as a magnet for returning war veterans. Many would mark the years between 1945 and 1950 as representing the highest point of the school’s illustrious history, and they too were fueled by the return of World War II veterans, many of whom received their discharge papers at nearby Ft. Mason.
For my own part, I can speak as someone with a 40-year involvement with SFAI, initially as an undergraduate student, later as a graduate student, and, since 1985, as a faculty member. During that time, I have seen many ups and downs, many twists and turns, and at least eight school presidents come and go. During that time, I have seen the school’s fortunes rise and fall in lockstep with the many waves of change that have beset Northern California, and I have worked with thousands of students who came to the school to seek their own truth. Although it is still premature to write an obituary, we can still point out to the school’s remarkable 149-year legacy. Many of the personalities that the school incubated were larger-than-life, and for well over a century, it was a meeting place for artistic luminaries hailing from around the world. Henri Matisse visited the school in 1930, and Marcel Duchamp came in 1949. Over the years, its world-class guest lecture program has hosted the likes of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Odd Nerdrum, Lari Pittman, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Peter Plagens, Donald Kuspit, Dave Hickey, Richard Wollheim, David Hockney, Arthur Danto, T.J. Clark, Peter Selz, Larry Harvey, Rem Koolhaus, Wangechi Mutu, Lisa Yuskavage, Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili and Jenny Saville, to name but a few among hundreds of others. The list of former faculty is equally illustrious. It includes Arthur Matthews, Gottardo Piazzoni, Dorr Bothwell, Clyfford Still, David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Jeremy Anderson, Richard Shaw, Douglas Hall, Paul Kos, Reagan Louie and Henry Wessel. Recent alumni such as Barry McGee, Kehinde Wiley and Deborah Roberts are but three among dozens of others who have staked out impressive reputations in the recently internationalized art world. A more complete list would fill many pages.
More than any other institution, SFAI has done the most to put San Francisco on the international map of cultural aspiration. From 1945 to 1950, Clyfford Still and Douglas MacAgy came there to dream of a future for art education that would end up being as influential as anything concocted by the Bauhaus or Black Mountain College. At that time, Ansel Adams founded the first fine art-oriented photography program in the country, and very soon thereafter, Sydney Peterson started the Workshop 20 film program, the first to bring experimental cinema into an academic setting. In 1976, faculty member Carlos Villa organized an exhibition at the school titled Other Sources that celebrated the American Bicentennial by featuring dozens of artists and arts groups hailing from many different ethnic groups. That exhibition is now widely regarded as the first to make diversity an operational priority and point of purpose, an early forerunner to the internationalization of the art world that emerged in the 1990s.
If an obituary is called for, then an autopsy should follow suit. During the past two decades, the school was beset by multiple challenges, ranging from the prohibitive cost of housing in San Francisco to the proliferation of competitor institutions working with a similar business model. Demographics are also a challenge, as there has been a significant decrease in the college-eligible age group, and that group has become much more skeptical about the long-term value of a college education. Starting in about 1999, there were at least two episodes of severe financial miscalculation. Both are complex stories that will have to wait for a fuller telling. Suffice to say here, these episodes had the effect of giving pause to potential donors and prospective students, providing further impetus for a slow, downward spiral. And then came the election of Donald J. Trump and with it new and draconian constraints on many of the international students who have made up such a large share of the school’s student population for the past two decades.
No account of SFAI’s fate would be complete without taking note of how San Francisco has changed during the past two decades. During that time it has become the economically cleansed haven for condo-dwelling theresanapforthatniks who haven’t the slightest interest in any cultural legacy beyond one that would cast themselves as the real artists of the not-so-brave-new-world. For them, arts institutions and museums are hopelessly clinging to an irrelevant past, rather like the collectors who hoard the traditional basket weavings of displaced cultures. While many will mourn the possible loss of SFAI, what they are more likely to be grieving is the loss of older ideas of cultural possibility that we might associate with the Barbary Coast renegades who founded the original Bohemian Club, the Beatniks, Hippies and Punks who have all disappeared from the landscape. It seems that the romance that would lead someone to seek an art school education is not as deeply felt in the culture as it once was, now that we have hundreds of how-to-make-“art” videos available on YouTube.
The San Francisco Art Institute has always been a place where artists were born and where many lost souls were saved. It was a sanctuary, a laboratory and a launching pad, providing many thousands of students with a few precious years to experience and realize their own potential for self-discovery and world awareness. The freedom to explore unexplored possibilities was the school’s main attraction, which meant that it always nourished dissident thinkers and eccentric approaches to the problems of art and life. Those things and the people associated with them would be sustained by students as fond memories for the rest of their lives. That is because the education at SFAI always rested on the premise that an art school education needed to be, first-and-foremost, an adventure of discovery, one that bordered on a kind of
intoxicating madness, all cleverly designed to attract adventurous spirits to share a common quest. Why else would anyone make such a sizable investment in private school tuition, when serviceable college degrees could be acquired at state schools for a fraction of that cost? This question was best answered by longtime faculty member Richard Berger, who wrote several years ago that the Art Institute “has a natural singularity that has catalyzed the poetic imagination … It is simultaneously indelible and diffuse about its being, creating the sense that dreaming happens here and that it has left its traces in the same way that a parade of shadows can animate a place by making all of its past a presence and an immediacy. That presence was never the intention of any of the many contributors to the school’s being, yet they all dreamed here.”
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About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.