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Defying concerns of creative exodus, SF arts college kicks off major expansion

Courtyard rendering | Courtesy of Studio Gang

At a time when Downtown continues to struggle and many worry about creatives fleeing San Francisco, the California College of the Arts is digging in. 

The 115-year-old art school in the Design District is launching a major expansion. The project provides more evidence that the arts are alive and well in the city and that the pandemic, while closing some doors, has also opened new pathways for artists here. 

Stakeholders broke ground Tuesday on the school’s expansion, which will add 90,000 square feet to the college and create an indoor-outdoor connected campus that the school touts as a “creative ecosystem.” The expansion also adds affordable housing for some 750 students. 

“We're poised to have the most exciting urban park design college campus anywhere in the country—in a region of social innovation and creativity,” said Stephen Beal, who started as the school’s provost in 1997, became its president in 2008 and called the city a “petri dish for innovation.” 

Beal had the dream of uniting the school’s programs and faculty on a single campus since he began working at the California College of the Arts 25 years ago, and his excitement is contagious. Beal frames the project within a larger moment in which many arts and cultural organizations are reimagining how they can be part of the city. 

San Francisco has witnessed its fair share of collapsing programs—most notably the closure of the San Francisco Art Institute and the continued shrinking of City College of San Francisco

Students at California College of the Arts | Courtesy of CCA

“One of the keys to CCA is our campus, which provides for adjacency between programs,” Beal said, explaining that artists in different fields—from fashion design to graphic design, from painters to ceramicists to architects—have the opportunity to be exposed to one another. “Instead of being siloed, you're exposed to a variety of ways of working,” he said. 

Beal credited CCA’s survival to the diversity of its programs and the generosity of its board—as well as the flexibility of the private nonprofit model, which makes it the only independent and privately endowed arts school in Northern California. It’s also the only art school in the U.S. to offer a master’s of business administration, according to Beal. 

The expansion, which is projected to cost $123 million, has already raised $118 million, thanks to contributions by board members and community leaders. The school hopes to close the final $5 million gap with the public launch of its fundraiser, the Maker/Meets/Future campaign, and open the new campus in fall of 2024. 

Studio Gang, an architecture and urban design practice helmed by MacArthur Award-winning architect Jeanne Gang, designed the expansion project, which comprises flexible studios, labs and classrooms, as well as space for exhibitions and gatherings.

The California College of the Arts was founded in 1907 and enrolls approximately 1,550 students and employs around 500 faculty and 300 staff. Its Oakland campus closed after the spring semester in preparation for the unification project. 

“Our campus will be the most dynamic urban art and design college in the country,” Beal said. “A great city deserves a great art school.” 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at