Philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs is part of a group of investors and arts leaders looking to acquire the storied San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). Linked to alumni like painter Kehinde Wiley, photographer Annie Leibovitz and director Spike Jonze, the now-bankrupt fine arts academy went on the market after entering foreclosure earlier this year.
The founder and president of philanthropic impact investment firm Emerson Collective has previously supported arts initiatives including the experiential art center Superblue and U.S. art installation tours by French artist JR. Now, Powell Jobs is partnering with a new nonprofit to save the SFAI, as first reported by the San Francisco Business Times, which noted that she has pledged to provide an endowment of an unknown amount to secure the institute.
Brenda Way, founder of dance organization ODC, and David Stull, president and CEO of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), are two of the local arts community members on the nonprofit’s advisory board. Stull “supports the reimagination of the future of the institute of art,” Mark Taylor, SFCM’s director of communications, said in a statement sent to Observer.
Earlier this week, Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, helped push the project forward by introducing legislation that would allow an uncredited institution to operate on SFAI’s campus. “Everyone is very hopeful that this acquisition will come to fruition and allow this 150-year-old institution to continue,” he told Observer.
Why is the San Francisco Art Institute so beloved?
Founded in 1871 as the San Francisco Art Association, SFAI is the Bay Area’s oldest art school. Very early on, the institution attracted influential artists across disciplines, including Henry Kiyama, Rudolf Hess and Emily Carr. In the mid-20th century, it became a hub of Abstract Expressionism through its appointment of teachers like Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko and opened its art photography department under Ansel Adams.
In 1949, SFAI hosted the Western Roundtable of Art, with participants such as Marcel Duchamp and Frank Lloyd Wright. Six years later it became involved in the Beat movement, with poet Allen Ginsberg giving his first reading of Howl at the Six Gallery, which was run by artists of SFAI. The school has provided employment and instruction for faculty and students as diverse as activist Angela Davis and tattooist Ed Hardy.
But despite its celebrated history, SFAI filed for bankruptcy last April following a series of financial issues linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, dwindling enrollment and an expensive expansion. In March of 2020, the arts school laid off faculty and announced it would be unable to accept new students for the fall semester. While it remained open to already enrolled students following a subsequent $4 million donation, SFAI shuttered its doors two years later, following in the footsteps of several other art colleges that have closed in the past decade.
The acquisition of SFAI by Powell Jobs and her group could breathe new life into the school. “The Arts Institute was a huge part of San Francisco for 150 years and thanks to philanthropic support, this location will have a new opportunity to be a part of an exciting new era for our City,” tweeted London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco.
The purchase would not only include the institution’s two-acre campus on San Francisco’s Russian Hill but also a monumental Diego Rivera fresco in the school’s student gallery. Valued at $50 million, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City is one of three Rivera murals in San Francisco. It was created by the artist on site in May of 1931 and depicts a laborer flanked by engineers, sculptors, architects and Rivera himself. An unknown artist added the communist hammer and sickle to the mural in the 1980s—an alteration found to have been committed using pigmented toothpaste after the fresco was cleaned in 1990.
In January of 2021, as the school’s debt grew, SFAI administrators considered selling the mural, with Star Wars creator George Lucas floated as a potential buyer. Adjunct faculty flocked to criticize the decision in an open letter, as did alumni Catherine Opie, who called it “an incredibly unconscionable decision” and declared she would pull a work of hers from an upcoming auction benefiting the school. In response, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to designate the mural a landmark, meaning it could not be removed from its home at SFAI without approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.