The San Francisco Art Institute Has Reversed Its Plans to Wind Down Following a $4 Million Surge of Donations

While teachers' jobs have been saved, there is still much fundraising—and reimagining—to do. 

Students gathering below Diego Rivera's famous mural at the San Francisco Art Institue. Image by Gary Stevens, via Flickr.
Students gathering below Diego Rivera's famous mural at the San Francisco Art Institue. Image by Gary Stevens, via Flickr.

The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) has announced that it will reinstate its degree programs next fall, effectively reversing its previous decision to cease enrolling new students and awarding degrees after this summer. Students within a year of completing their degrees have been invited to re-enroll.

The 149-year-old school also reached an agreement with the faculty union. All 15 tenured faculty on staff will retain their positions until at least next June. 

“We are happy to say that this successfully resolves our grievances under the Collective Bargaining Agreement relating to shared governance as well as employment conditions,” said Robin Balliger, president of the faculty union, in a statement. “A number of students have already told us that they would like to return to SFAI to finish out their degrees here. The faculty are excited about working with them online and then getting back to the studios and classrooms with them when it’s safe to do so.”

Facing a sharp financial shortfall, the venerable art school was in search of a larger academic institution with which to merge when the pandemic hit this spring. The immediate economic fallout made such a merger all but impossible, causing the school to dramatically slash its offerings back in March

Following an uproar among students, alumni, and others in the art world, the school’s board voted in April to keep the school open in a limited capacity, offering public education programs and studio art classes. Since then, supporters have come out of the woodwork, saving the school from becoming a shell of its former self—at least for the time being. 

The San Francisco Art Institute. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The San Francisco Art Institute. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“In April, we were struggling to make payroll, and given the uncertainties wrought by the epidemic, the Board felt we could not responsibly commit to keeping our faculty or students through next year,”  SFAI board chair Pam Rorke Levy said in a statement. “Since then we’ve seen an outpouring of support and encouragement from potential partners and charitable organizations that enabled us to raise more than $4 million from foundations, individuals, alums, and government programs in short order, three times our normal annual fundraising efforts.”

But the school still has a long way to go. 

“We need to raise $4.5 million more to make it through this fiscal year and cover the commitment to our faculty, staff, and students,” the vice-chair of the board, Jeremy Stone, added in the same press statement. The school, which will celebrate its 150th birthday next year, already has a number of fundraising initiatives underway, including an auction of works by SFAI alumni.

Due to the pandemic, fall courses will likely be held online, explained Levy, leaving open the option that students may return to real classrooms in the spring. 

Meanwhile, a task force of current students, alumni, and members of the board, faculty, and staff has been formed to look at options for the school’s future. The Committee to Reimagine SFAI will be “looking at resuming SFAI’s historic majors and degree programs, exploring new models of art education for a wide range of students, centering conversations about anti-racism to self-reflect, educate, and repair at every level of SFAI’s operations, and building a financially sustainable business model for the school,” the announcement explained.  


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