The San Francisco Art Institute will not accept students for the fall semester after almost 150 years in operation, ending the legacy of a once-storied school that produced famous artists like Annie Leibovitz, Kehinde Wiley and Catherine Opie.
The institute announced Monday in a schoolwide letter that it plans to suspend classes after the spring semester. Graduating students will receive their degrees in May, but faculty and staff were told to prepare for mass layoffs. One senior official close to the decision-making process said the school was likely to close because of mounting debt.
“We are looking down the barrel of a gun,” Gordon Knox, the college president, told faculty during a town-hall meeting in late February. Like many art schools across the country, declining enrollment and financial hardships have plagued the institution for years. In 2017, S.F.A.I. spent millions on a second campus on the city’s waterfront. This year, the school abandoned another costly project to build new dormitories. The final straw for the faltering institution was when discussions to merge with a local university collapsed after the coronavirus sent the Bay Area into a lockdown. Pam Rorke Levy, the institute board’s chair, estimated the university’s total debt was around $19 million but likely to increase because the school is not earning revenue during the health crisis.
“While we remain hopeful there is a strategic partnership that will allow this commitment to continue,” Mr. Knox wrote to students and faculty on Monday, “we are realistic that this will not happen any time soon in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic.”
The school is currently closed because of the coronavirus. Students learned it was facing closure as they sheltered in place and adjusted to sometimes-haphazard online instruction in studio art and sculpture. “What institution is going take me now during coronavirus?” asked Rebecca Sexton, a 28-year-old pursuing a dual-degree graduate program. “It’s hard to know what exactly will happen,” added Ms. Sexton, who was expecting to start writing her master’s thesis next year.
Corinna Kirsch, an art history lecturer, said, “I’m really sad that a vibrant community where you could still see artists walking around barefoot on campus has come to an end.” Founded in 1871, S.F.A.I. claims to be the only fine arts school dedicated to contemporary art. It gained an illustrious reputation on the West Coast for courting faculty members like the photographers Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston.
In 1931, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” in the school’s gallery. Faced with its current financial crisis, administrators have floated the idea of selling the Rivera fresco, which has been appraised for $50 million. “When you have an asset that’s that valuable,” Ms. Levy explained, “there’s always a discussion.”
“As a small college in an expensive town we are feeling the pain,” she added.
The San Francisco Art Institute joined a growing list of more than a dozen art schools across America that have faced bankruptcy in the last year. In February, the Watkins College of Art made headlines when it announced a planned merger with Belmont University, a Christian institution in Nashville — a decision that led students and professors to protest over concerns about freedom of expression.
“Every art school is dealing with economic hardship in one degree or another,” said Massimo Pacchione, who was the school’s director of student experience until being laid off this week. “Education is increasingly seen more as an engine for economic advancement rather than a pursuit of passion.”