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The morning of July 15, five BFA students stood in the San Francisco Art Institute’s Diego Rivera Gallery, talking about their work. They’d received their diplomas three days earlier in a small, bittersweet ceremony on the Chestnut Street campus’ brutalist rooftop. Now they were fielding critiques and questions from a group of three arts professionals, myself included.
Besides the gloomy superlative of comprising the entirety of the “last BFA class” in SFAI’s storied 151-year history, these five students are like so many of the SFAI students I’ve met over the years: dedicated artists, excited to move forward in their practices, and in possession of a healthy disdain for all things conventional and institutional.
Over the past two years, SFAI students, staff and faculty have experienced a pandemic, a closed campus, remote art instruction, transfers, layoffs, and foreclosure proceedings. Finally, as announced during that BFA show critique, they witnessed the official end of SFAI’s academic programs.
A hoped-for “merger” with the University of San Francisco, first reported in early February, had fallen through. All staff and faculty were terminated. The Board of Trustees planned to form a nonprofit foundation to protect the school’s history and archives. The students who were able to finish their degrees in an accelerated summer program took down their shows and packed up their art, the school’s doors closing behind them.
Yet even at this juncture, while SFAI is describing itself in funereal terms, a small group of students is working with the Board of Trustees to save the institution. Students For Action, led by a core trio of Grey Dey, Kristin Gundlach and Bianca Lago, hopes to raise $25 million before Aug. 15, an amount they believe will create a three-year pathway for the school. Ultimately, the goal is to stave off bankruptcy, hibernate until fall 2023, restructure, and reopen as an accredited degree-granting institution.
This type of hope is the story of SFAI, over and over again. Even when circumstances appear dire, those who believe in the school’s mission—and stand to be most derailed by its closure—step up for yet another last-ditch effort. After the news of July 15, while mournful alums posted on social media, Dey, Gunlach and Lago sent emails and scheduled fundraising meetings.
“SF without SFAI is just unimaginable,” Dey says.
Students for Action formed in the wake of a meeting in early May, when it became clear that the acquisition negotiations between USF and SFAI were not going as planned. “We realized that the board had their hands tied and there was a very small number of people that were able to really help,” Lago says. “We felt that there were alternative routes that we could take.”
What Lago’s referring to is the January letter of intent that required SFAI to negotiate with USF exclusively until June 30. “They were technically allowed to fundraise,” Gundlach says, “but part of the LOI required them to do their best to make sure that the negotiations would go through and that USF and SFAI would both benefit.” The students, however, were not bound by this agreement.
Many ad hoc groups have formed around SFAI over the past two years, after the school first announced plans to halt enrollment and transfer its remaining students elsewhere. Those include the remarkable grassroots undertaking of the Reimagine Committee and a brief flirtation with a class-action lawsuit, but Students for Action says they’re taking an altogether different approach.
While all three have plenty of reasons to feel misled by SFAI leadership (Gundlach and Lago are halfway through their two-year MFA degrees, and Dey was set to receive a BFA in spring 2023), they are now working in conjunction with the Board of Trustees.
“What’s really different this time is the emphasis on collaborative pathways and how we’re looking to restructure the school not only administratively, but also as a center of the arts in San Francisco,” Dey says. They’re open to working with tech companies, government entities and other nonprofits. The nonprofit Bridge Span has committed to helping restructure the school if they can secure the funding to continue. And while $25 million is the goal, Students for Action is mindful that’s a big number.
“The hope, of course, is that some miracle happens and we have the $25 million and we can work with that in our hands and reshape everything,” Gundlach says. If that’s not achievable, directing any and all funds towards the preservation of the school’s archives is their top priority.
The group is working towards an Aug. 15 deadline with the understanding that the school will be forced to to declare bankruptcy on this date. (When questioned on this detail, SFAI’s spokesperson could not confirm that outcome.)
“This has not been determined” was, in fact, a repeated answer to my questions on a number of topics. Those included: Will the campus reopen for visitors to admire the architecture and Diego Rivera fresco? What will become of the other “lost murals” on campus, all in various states of conservation? Who will run the foundation overseeing SFAI’s legacy? If the school is unable to maintain its lease on the Chestnut Street campus, where will SFAI’s archives move?
The archives are of particular concern, and not just because they hold the tangible history of the school and the art movements it spawned. Earlier this year, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded SFAI a $234,820 grant to rehouse the institution’s 544 linear feet of archival material. That project includes digitizing 23 hours of “at-risk audiovisual materials,” to be made available via the Internet Archive.
But now even this very necessary undertaking is an unknown. “In the coming weeks,” the SFAI spokesperson explained, “SFAI will work with the National Endowment for the Humanities to determine if and how SFAI can utilize their grant to support SFAI’s Archives.”
The one definitive answer I received about SFAI’s future came on the subject of the courtyard fountain’s two residents: “SFAI security has been and will continue to feed the turtles.”
While Students For Action refuse to throw in the towel, the obituaries for SFAI proliferate. I think for many—especially those who have been personally affected by the school’s ups and (mostly) downs—hearing something conclusive about SFAI’s fate is a relief.
If SFAI cannot afford to pay for rent, utilities and security on their campuses, they will lose their leases. And while SFAI still owns the Diego Rivera fresco, the University of California now owns the Chestnut Street building. A loss of their lease is also a loss of the Diego Rivera, their most valuable asset.
What will also be lost—as I have said many times before—is the energizing spirit of the SFAI community as it spilled beyond campus and into conversation with the issues, people and institutions of the Bay Area. It’s a legacy that can be gleaned from archives and stories, but in the years to come, as the school remains closed and its faculty scatter to the wind, that influence will slowly fade from the local art scene.
In their fight for the school’s future, Dey, Gundlach and Lago have become a metaphor for this spirit. “Once upon a time, each one of us was applying to this giant of an arts institution to become better artists,” Dey says. But going through this upheaval in the company of other SFAI students, alums, faculty and staff has turned them into activists, administrators and organizers.
“That’s what SFAI does,” Lago says, even when there’s so little of SFAI left to point to. “It teaches you the value of community.”