- The 151-year-old San Francisco Art Institute will no longer function as a college and will not offer degrees after the collapse of its planned merger with the University of San Francisco.
- Officials from the two private nonprofit institutions announced in February they had signed a letter of intent for U of San Francisco, a Jesuit school, to acquire the institute’s assets, which include its property and its art and film collections.
- But “several critical issues emerged” that derailed the deal, U of San Francisco leaders said in a statement Friday. Those problems include the institute’s poor finances and student enrollment projections, as well as concerns about its compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and delayed property maintenance.
San Francisco Art Institute, which taught the likes of Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz, has been on the brink of financial disaster since 2020. That’s when an initial arrangement to join with U of San Francisco fell through and it appeared it would close amid the economic stressors of the coronavirus pandemic. Officials said they would not enroll new students and had planned for significant layoffs.
That fall, the institute enrolled only 26 undergraduates and 15 graduate students, according to federal data.
However, the institute was saved after the University of California system in October 2020 bought its almost $20 million in debt from a private bank.
It appeared to be on a path to financial solvency with the U of San Francisco, whose president, the Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, said earlier this year that the new deal would have provided “greater capacity to build an extraordinary, transformative, social justice-oriented arts education.”
The merger plan failed once again. U of San Francisco instead intends to start its own master’s of fine arts program in fall 2023 and a bachelor’s of fine arts in fall 2024, pending approval from its accreditor.
Meanwhile, San Francisco Art Institute said in a statement on its website it had graduated its final class and was no longer financially viable. It said it halted its degree programs as of Friday.
Margot Frey, an institute spokesperson, said in an email that 42 students were still in the process of transferring “to other entities” and the institution’s advising team continues to work to identify those options. California College of the Arts “has agreed to be the lead transfer school” for undergraduates as well as graduate students, if space permits. Other students have made arrangements to move to institutions such as Hunter College and University of California, Berkeley, Frey said.
Only a few contractors remain on the campus, who are handling regulatory, legal and financial matters and ensuring students and alumni can access academic records.
The institute said it is creating a nonprofit “to protect its name, storied history, and SFAI’s Archives — a wealth of primary source material about art, culture, and American arts education in the 19th through 21st centuries.”
It also noted it is attempting to protect a valuable fresco by renowned Mexican painter Diego Rivera, which at one point it had considered selling to help balance its budget. The University of California owns the building where the fresco is housed, and the institute would lose possession of the artwork if the institution defaulted on or lost its lease.
“After years of planning and immeasurable sacrifice by our students, faculty, and staff, it is profoundly lamentable that we are faced now with this present outcome,” Lonnie Graham, chair of the institute’s trustee board, said in a statement. “The Board’s goal was to preserve the legacy of one of the last remaining fine arts-only institutions while advancing the course of innovative educational practices that occurs through reciprocity between the students and faculty.”