A struggling San Francisco art school will merge with a university

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A struggling San Francisco art school will merge with a university
“The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” by Diego Rivera, on display at the San Francisco Art Institute. SFAI via The New York Times.

by Matt Stevens

NEW YORK, NY.- Leaders of the financially troubled San Francisco Art Institute say they have formalized plans to integrate operations and academic programs with the University of San Francisco, a private Jesuit university, in a process they say will eventually lead to the university acquiring the 150-year-old art school.

In a news release, the art school said Wednesday that the heads of the two institutions have signed a formal letter of intent to begin the process of exploring exactly how to merge their undergraduate and graduate arts programs. The agreement has been approved by the trustees of each institution, the statement said, and calls for a period of due diligence before the acquisition takes place.

The resulting program will be known as the San Francisco Art Institute at the University of San Francisco, the statement said. Under the agreement, the University of San Francisco will take over the art school’s historical buildings, art and film collections, and assets. Those assets include everything on the art school’s Chestnut Street campus, which houses a Diego Rivera Gallery that holds a valuable mural.

Officials said they expect their review to be completed in time for integrated operations to begin this fall.

“After months of confrontation, negotiation, triumph, strategy, gratitude, hope and elation we find ourselves joining with another organization that realizes the depth of our contribution and the confluence of our ideals,” Lonnie Graham, the San Francisco Art Institute’s board chair, said in a letter posted on the school’s website. “This merger will help to ensure the continuation of our school and the contribution of our students.”

News of the pending acquisition brings a potential resolution to what has been years of financial tumult for the Art Institute, which brands itself as among the nation’s oldest and most prestigious schools of contemporary fine art.

Facing a mountain of debt after costly expansions, declining enrollment and the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the school — which has seen the likes of Ansel Adams, Kathryn Bigelow, Annie Leibovitz and Mark Rothko teach and study within its walls — suspended classes, stopped accepting students and faced the prospect of shuttering in 2020.

The University of California Board of Regents helped save the school when it stepped in to buy its $19.7 million of debt from a private bank. But even with that aid, school officials came under fire when some considered selling a beloved mural by Diego Rivera — said to be worth $50 million — to help balance the budget.

Amid the turmoil, Pam Rorke Levy, then-chair of the Art Institute, resigned in January 2021. Graham, a photographer, took over as chair.

In the school’s news release about the coming merger, officials said the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of San Francisco had had conversations about potentially integrating their programming and operations “at various times over the past decade.”

The due diligence period will include a review of finances, the physical assets at the art school’s Chestnut Street campus, and the logistics around the process of academic accreditation, among other issues. Officials said that current San Francisco Art Institute students who complete their degree programs at the University of San Francisco will receive the same academic services, opportunities and support that the University of San Francisco students traditionally receive.

In a letter to his campus community, Paul J. Fitzgerald, president of the University of San Francisco, said that combining the institutions’ efforts during the period of due diligence “provides us with greater capacity to build an extraordinary, transformative, social justice-oriented arts education within our liberal arts and Jesuit tradition that will benefit the Bay Area, the nation and the world.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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