The closure of the San Francisco Art Institute: “Artists can hang themselves”

The announcement in mid-July that the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) would cease operations, no longer offering courses or degrees, is a significant and telling event.

Whatever the concrete circumstances and whatever individuals or bodies may bear some responsibility, the closure of the once renowned school is a further sign – in the broadest sense – which, in the eyes of the ruling elite American, as we noted in April 2021 regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, “artists can go hang themselves.”

The situation is extraordinary. Not only was SFAI one of the oldest art academies in the United States and the oldest in its western half, but it was located in one of the country’s most vibrant cultural centers historically, the Bay Area. In fact, the institute was at the center of various currents and artistic movements of the 20th century. Now he’s disappeared, without substantial outcry or protest, certainly not from the city’s wealthy upper echelons.

Art Institute of San Francisco (Photo credit – Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

In their July 15 announcement, Art Institute officials explained that after “many years of austerity measures, difficult fundraising and various on-and-off merger and acquisition negotiations…SFAI is no longer no longer financially viable and has ceased its academic programs effective July 15, 2022. SFAI will remain a non-profit organization to protect its name, archives, and legacy.

The school’s press release, written with some bitterness, noted that beginning July 16 “no student or employee will fill the historic SFAI campus, a beautiful and unique place in San Francisco with its glorious mural of Diego Rivera… Instead, a few contractors will handle security, regulatory, legal, and financial issues, and ensure that students and alumni can access their academic records.

According to the SFAI’s own historical account, “During its first 60 years, influential artists associated with the school included Eadweard Muybridge, photographer and motion graphics pioneer; Maynard Dixon, San Francisco labor movement and western landscape painter; Henry Kiyama, whose Four Manga Immigrants was the first graphic novel published in the United States; Sargent Claude Johnson, one of the first African-American artists in California to achieve national recognition; Louise Dahl-Wolfe, an innovative photographer whose work for Harper’s Bazaar in the 1930s defined a new American style of “environmental” fashion photography; John Gutzon Borglum, the creator of the large-scale public sculpture known as Mt. Rushmore; and many others. »

After World War II, “the school became a nucleus for Abstract Expressionism”. The first fine art photography department in the United States was established at SFAI in 1946. “In the early 1950s, San Francisco’s North Beach was the West Coast center of the Beat movement, and music, poetry and speech were integral to the artists’ lives.”

SFAI faculty have included photographers Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Minor White, painters Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, and filmmakers Stan Brakhage and George Kuchar.

The closure places the famous work of Mexican artist Rivera, The realization of a fresco showing the construction of a city, painted at school in May 1931, in a precarious position. The July 15 announcement explains that the SFAI owns the mural on its Chestnut Street campus, while “the University of California owns the building. SFAI will lose possession of the fresco in the event of default in payment or loss of its lease on the building. SFAI is actively working with local and international donor communities to protect the mural.

The realization of a fresco showing the construction of a city by Diego Rivera (1931)

The immediate circumstance that caused the July 15 closure was the failed attempt to merge SFAI with the University of San Francisco (USF), a private Jesuit institution. The university signed a letter of intent in February 2022 pledging to study the possibility of “integrating operations and academic programs in the arts to elevate the next generation of artists”. However, in July, USF officials reported that after five months of “extensive exploration and discussion of possible integration of arts education programs for undergraduate and graduate students,” the university had informed the art institute that “a complete integration of the two universities is not possible”. feasible due to financial and other considerations.

A combination of processes undermined the art school. The financial difficulties of the SFAI are not new. An April 2020 article by Sarah Hotchkiss at KQED commented that, depending on “who you talk to, SFAI issues stem from different causes. Some blame the first dot-com bust. Others, many others, point the finger at the school [$19 million] expansion to Fort Mason. Still others blame the rising cost of living in San Francisco or the difficulty of running a small school without a huge endowment.

The decline in registrations has not helped matters. A variety of factors contributed to this, including, according to Hotchkiss, “prohibitive Bay Area rents, the expense of a private college education, the fear of graduating with crushing debt.” Tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year was approximately $46,000 for undergraduates and nearly $48,000 for graduate students. As the same article points out, “90% of SFAI domestic students take out some form of loan to continue their education, loans that one day have to be repaid. Amid Student Debt Crisis, Art Degree Costs Nearly $280,000 [including graduate school] can be a hard sell.

Moreover, as it has done in so many areas, the pandemic has had a “trigger effect” here too. The seemingly insurmountable new financial problems erupted in the spring of 2020, after the school was forced to shut down due to the health crisis. SFAI Board Chair Pam Rorke Levy said ART news at a time when “over the past 149 years, the San Francisco Art Institute has survived crises large and small…but the uncertainties and financial difficulties resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to sink us.”

clean art observed in January 2021 that “the first art academy in the country west of the Mississippi… where giants like Ansel Adams once taught, has suffered many financial difficulties in its long history. But as real estate prices and the cost of living in the Bay Area have soared, the financial situation of the school, which offers only fine arts degrees and no programs (usually more profit) of design and architecture, has become particularly precarious.

Artnet reported at the time that SFAI was considering selling Rivera’s mural, valued at $50 million, and that one of the potential buyers was filmmaker George Lucas.

The disappearance of the San Francisco Art Institute is a shameful event, testifying to the general decline of cultural life in a capitalist America in crisis. As we wrote after a year of pandemic, as the catastrophe for art and artists unfolded, overall, “the global ruling elites consider any activity that is not directly and immediately related to the profit-gathering or rising stock values ​​as unnecessary and counterproductive.Worse still, as social tensions mount, there is always the danger that artists may speak unconscionable truths and gain a significant public following. .

A US government report from March 2021 claimed that artists were “among the workers most severely affected by the pandemic”. The update estimated that 63% of artists or creative workers “became completely unemployed in 2020 and lost an average of $37,430 each in creativity-based income since the start of the pandemic.” Ninety-five percent of artists reported loss of income, while 78% had “no post-pandemic financial recovery plan”, 50% had been “unable to sell/distribute their creative product” and 74 % had “had their events cancelled”.

This, of course, was on top of pre-pandemic conditions for the vast majority of artists in the United States that were already impossible.

In his book Death of the Artist: How Creators Struggle to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech (2020), William Deresiewicz noted a study finding that “only 10% of the two million arts graduates in the United States live primarily as artists, that 85% of artists in New York City have day jobs unrelated to the arts, and that the remaining 15% have a median income of $25,000.” Meanwhile, in 2018, “just twenty individuals accounted for 64% of total living artist sales.”

Are there enough resources in the San Francisco Bay Area to support an art college? Presumably. In April 2022, according to Forbesthe region was home to 116 billionaires, more than residing in any other State, except New York. The six richest people in California, who all live in the Bay Area, have a collective net worth of more than a third of a trillion dollars, reports the magazine. What shall we call them then, “the barbarians of the Golden Gate”?

About Bernice D. Brewer

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