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.
Alan Sonneman says
Mark, thank you for the article. It was a nice remembrance but slight on the hard facts need to understand why this happened. This article at KQED (https://www.kqed.org/arts/13878509/the-san-francisco-art-institute-will-never-be-what-it-once-was) seems to pretty well cover those questions. The explanation is money. The place never had any. I was at SFAI in the mid seventies, I was glad I was there for a couple of years but I have mixed feelings about the place. It was more myth than reality. When you walked through that gate with that immense tower hovering way over your head, it was more than a door it was a portal, like in a C.S. Lewis story. It was different on the other side, it was the art world. That was the myth they sold. It was the building itself more than any faculty. I learned to say I was an artist there. As for the instruction I can’t say much but then how the hell do you teach art? The best courses were from visiting artists and writers from the East Coast who dropped in for a few weeks. Barbara Rose split a course with Jack Burnhan and Lawrence Alloway on Duchamp while I sat next to The Rose encased in plaster. The professors were mostly the left overs who didn’t get the well paying job with benefits at Cal or Stanford. Lobdell and Oliveira were at Stanford, we got Jefferson and Tchakalian. Wiley and Thiebaud were at Davis. We had the enchanting James Broughton. Yes, there are exceptions, I’m sure you can sight a lot of them. I got the education I needed when I moved to DC where I had the privilege of hanging out a lot with Walter Hopps and working in the museums where I met all sorts of artists. SFAI gave me the street cred to play major league bay.
I paid $2k a year (half of my Northwestern tuition) and $50/month on rent. I earned most of that with a summer job. My question is how the faculty could justify themselves, $50K (I see different numbers on this) really? You were either catering to the very wealthy or allowing students to commit themselves to a life of debt servitude so you could live your privileged lifestyle? It had always struggled for money bouncing from one crisis to the next. It had over reached on so many levels it seems. There appear to be no major heavy hitters or deep pockets on the board capable of stepping up to the challenge. Silicon sugar daddies about as common as sugar plum fairies. If behemoths like the Corcoran in DC can fall the demise the Art Institute is not surprising. According to the charter the school will default to the UC regents which might not be such a bad outcome. An extension of Cal’s at department perhaps? A Kunsthalle? What are your hopes Mark for its future, what do you think the reality is?
Amir Esfahani says
Good Job Mark, RIP Richard Berger…that’s a great quote.
Doug Hall says
Oh, Mark, you said it all so elegantly and expressed so many of the things I’ve been feeling. I was trying to write about SFAI myself and was filled with so many memories from the outrageous to the sublime, and all of the great people, students, faculty, staff, I had the pleasure of knowing that I was overcome and just stared blankly into my computer screen until deciding I better take a solitary walk..
Maria Nikl says
Dear Mark, thank you for this article!! Me, too, I grew up at SFAI all over again, my secretly held values could blossom–and I took them with me….into the outside world, that immediately began trampling over them. SFAI was indeed a sanctuary, a mystic place where one’s own truth was honored and encouraged to be found and expressed. And the War Veterans in the faculty as well as in the student body played such a huge part in creating and grounding that no bs atmosphere, where new students heavily programmed with everyday lies could come in, and start peeling off the layers of the onion–till they found a piece of truth in themselves.
To me at this point saving SFAI is not making so much sense–the history and fame will live on– it let it destroy itself, and maybe then, it could be created anew. A fresh start.
It was the people factor that made it great, and that doesn’t need the fame , the building or the admin–it would only need a bunch of visionary true believers who could trust each other and thus work together. Create a special community. To me the real question is–does this exist in todays world? Could it happen?
It’s true Mark.
I can’t help but feel I have let the school down as fresh meat for the narcissistic world I find my self swimming in. I still have faith in the ghosts of a place where even unrealistic rent can’t stop that energy. I will visit that place one day even if I can’t afford it. It’s just too beautiful. Thanks for your words and memories.
J. McNiel says
Didn’t Katherine Bigelow, the first woman director to win an Oscar go to SFAI? And Eleanor Coppola? Maybe some of those Hollywood bright lights could fish SFAI out of the mire? If that could be accomplished, SFAI would still need to be a different kind of institution… downsizing and run in a more practical manner. Otherwise, it’s not going to survive for the long-term. Putting grad studios at Ft Mason on the water was a weird decision – what with rising sea levels, etc… just impractical, irresponsible. SF is a city for the rich, real estate is too expensive (most of us left the city long ago because few of us artists could pay the rent there and survive) and there are so many unmet and deeply pressing needs in the world now. If SFAI could train and mentor people who can address some of those needs, like poverty/inequity/environmental destruction etc, through their creativity, then the school might develop into something viable. I sure hope so. Thank you Mark, for the article. I will always remember SFAI as the Narnia of the SF Art World!
Suzy Barnard says
Thank you for writing about SFAI so eloquently, Mark, I came to check out SFAI in 1981, at the advice of Hassel Smith, who taught me as an undergrad in England. I will never forget the feeling I had when I walked into that courtyard for the first time. THIS is the place, I said to myself, this is the real thing. It was intoxicating. I was in the Graduate Painting program from 1982-84, and remember writing home to my parents that my instructor, Sam Tchkalian, had pronounced that what we all needed to ask ourselves, when trying to evaluate our work, was “Does it say, “Fuck You?”. So refreshing for prim me after stuffy academic English art school.
I’m really sorry it’s folding, and hope for miracles.
Patricia Powers says
“This is the place. This is the real thing”. You’ve nailed it. Having visited schools around the country and in London, I remember immediately feeling an irresistible undertow of energy, freedom, and conviction. I felt a bit scared there. That’s when I knew this was the place for me. I finished the BFA I’d started years ago at SVA and even though I was accepted at Hunter, I stayed for my MFA. It ruined me for “real life”.
Naomie Kremer says
It is a valuable institution both historically and now. I spent many wonderful Fridays drawing at the open life drawing sessions in the late 70s, then studied there with the inspired teacher and painter Sam Tchakalian, then finally taught there for a few years at the end of the 90s. I hope it comes back from hibernation and survives!
Ruth Chase says
Fantastic article Mark. A part of my soul was developed and nurtured there, a space to grow ones unknown. Thank you for writing this.