A group of local arts leaders is seeking to purchase the former campus of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), with the intention of establishing a new art school there. The non-profit formed by nine individuals—including philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, San Francisco Conservatory of Music chief executive David Stull and founder of the ODC/Dance Company Brenda Way—is currently negotiating a contract to buy the two-acre site on Russian Hill. The news of the pending purchase was first reported by Laura Waxmann of the San Francisco Business Times.
SFAI filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy last April and was forced to shutter with almost $20m in debt. It had operated for more than 150 years, standing as one of the oldest art schools in the US. In June, its two-building campus, along with a famed mural by Diego Rivera, was listed on the market with no advertised price. According to San Francisco Business Times, Powell Jobs (the widow of Steve Jobs) intends to provide an initial endowment of an unknown sum to buy the property.
Stull confirmed to the San Francisco Chronicle that the non-profit wants to create some kind of educational centre at the former SFAI site. “We are working to see that the Art Institute is preserved for aspiring artists to advance their work,” he said. “It will also serve as a resource for established artists to come together as well as a centre for community and the arts.”
That plan includes the preservation of a famed Rivera mural from 1931 that was commissioned by SFAI, whose fate has remained in question ever since the school’s bankruptcy announcement. Valued at $50m, the mural, The Making of a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City, can physically be removed from the property intact; this summer, the school’s board of trustees was exploring the option of a separate sale of the work to help cover SFAI’s debts. Such a sale, however, would be complicated by the fact that the mural was declared a city landmark in 2021.
Last week, Aaron Peskin, the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, took a step towards expanding the land-use rights of the campus, introducing an ordinance that would allow an unaccredited academic institution to operate there. “The way our current law works, the original art institute and similarly situated land uses have to be an ‘accredited institution’ in order to enjoy SFAI’s historic ability to locate where they were, in a residential neighbourhood,” Peskin told San Francisco Business Times.
The legislation must still be approved by the board and ultimately receive the signature of Mayor London Breed. Meanwhile, a bankruptcy court will have to sanction any deal that the non-profit reaches with SFAI’s bankruptcy trustee and the Regents of the University of California, which owns the land.
In a statement to San Francisco Business Times, Breed said she was “grateful for this potential new project in San Francisco. While the city is working hard on our recovery and we are making real progress, it is philanthropic support like this that really provides a boost to lift us to another level. The Art Institute was a huge part of San Francisco for 150 years, and it’s wonderful that this location will have the opportunity to enter into a new chapter and be a part of what I know will be an exciting new era for our city.”