Skip to main content
Arts & Entertainment

What’s to become of SF Art Institute’s treasure trove of Bay Area history?

The San Francisco Art Institute on May 7, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif. | Diana Cheng/Getty Images

The San Francisco Art Institute shuttered last year. But the prestigious art school’s history will live on as an archive and independent nonprofit organization for preserving the institute’s 151-year-old past.

Roy Lichtenstein lectures for the Current Moment in Art Symposium in April 1966. | Courtesy SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive Collection

The SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive (SFAI LF+A), an independent nonprofit organization comprising a group of dedicated SFAI community members, archivists, artists, curators and arts advocates, announced on Wednesday the launch of an official website and a campaign to raise $250,000 for a permanent space to house the art institute’s archives.

The collection includes primary-source material documenting the art school’s history and Northern California art movements dating all the way back to 1871. Before suspending educational programming last year, the San Francisco Art Institute was one of the oldest art schools in the United States. Its alumni include distinguished artists such as painter Richard Diebenkorn, photographer Annie Leibovitz, filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow and Obama portraitist Kehinde Wiley.

Diego Rivera, who painted a famous mural at SFAI, with William Gerstle and Arthur Brown in 1931. | Courtesy SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive Collection

"We are delighted to take this crucial step forward in fulfilling our mission to preserve the rich history of the San Francisco Art Institute and make it accessible to researchers and the public," Charles DeSantis, president and board chair of the foundation, said in a press release. "We believe that the stories and documents held within the archives are not only valuable to the art community, but also to anyone interested in the cultural and social history of the Bay Area and beyond.”

Photographer Imogen Cunningham and artist Ruth Asawa at "USA in Your Heart" photography exhibition in Walter and McBean Galleries at SFAI in 1969. | Courtesy SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive Collection

Highlights of the archival collection include work correspondence of SFAI photo department founder Ansel Adams; an interview with former SFAI faculty member Angela Davis; a 1968 flyer advertising a performance by Afrofuturist musician Sun Ra at SFAI; documentation of Henri Matisse’s 1930 visit to the school and a folding chair used by John Cage during his 1991 performance on the campus. The archive also holds over 1,100 audio recordings of lectures by artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, Laurie Anderson and John Baldessari, spanning from the 1940s to the present day. 

An Ansel Adam photograph depicts the Anne Bremer Memorial Library in 1939. | © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust/Courtesy SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive Collection

The SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive’s website will serve as a hub for the public to learn more about the foundation’s efforts and activities. The organization, which is an independent nonprofit separate from the San Francisco Art Institute, hopes to expand the website into an online archival resource with historic photos, documents and related materials. The foundation also hopes to offer paid fellowships, public programming and create publications to support its work. Two former SFAI archivists will be employed by the foundation to help secure a permanent home for the collection, safeguard its materials and help make the documents accessible to the public. The work of rehousing and cataloging the collection is currently supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

California School of Fine Arts courtyard is seen circa 1928. | Courtesy SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive Collection

"We are excited to have a platform where we can share the stories of the SFAI archives and engage with our community," said Katie Hood Morgan, SFAI LF+A founding board member. "We believe that by making the archives available to researchers, we can not only preserve the legacy of SFAI, but also inspire new generations of artists and scholars."

SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive

Christina Campodonico can be reached at christina@sfstandard.com