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Can Laurene Powell Jobs and investors save San Francisco Art Institute?

The San Francisco Art Institute is seen in San Francisco on Aug. 16, 2023. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

The news that a group of philanthropists is looking to rescue the iconic Russian Hill campus of the shuttered San Francisco Art Institute—where artistic luminaries from Annie Leibovitz to Kehinde Wiley once studied—is being welcomed by city stakeholders and art lovers. 

Arts and business leaders—including Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire widow of Steve Jobs—have formed an advisory committee that hopes to buy the nearly century-old campus out of bankruptcy, as first reported by the San Francisco Business Times. The committee includes philanthropists such as billionaire executive Laurene Powell Jobs as well as arts leaders like ODC/Dance founder Brenda Way and David Stull, president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents the district that contains SFAI’s campus at 800 Chestnut St., confirmed that the group is in talks to buy the building and use it for arts education. 

“It is music to my ears,” he said. 

The tower at the San Francisco Art Institute looms over the school campus in San Francisco on Aug. 16, 2023. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Founded in 1871, the art institute that claimed to be the oldest art school west of the Mississippi had been in decline for several years before it closed permanently in summer 2022. In April, it declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The demise of the beloved art institute, with its stately bell tower and famed Diego Rivera fresco, seemed like yet another sad tale in the ever-widening gyre of the city’s woes. 

City leaders are anxious to see the institution breathe new life, Peskin said. He added that he had pushed for a change in the planning code that would allow a non-accredited institution to operate on the site, clearing the way for the newly formed nonprofit to take over. 

Peskin’s proposed change is scheduled to go before the San Francisco Planning Commission in October before circling back to the Board of Supervisors for a final vote. 

“I don’t expect any opposition,” he said. 

The San Francisco Art Institute boasts a stately campus with intricate architecture. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Peskin and other officials hope that with the nonprofit at the helm, the school could again train art students and make Rivera’s mural, “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” accessible to the public.

Before it closed, the school at one point had considered selling Rivera’s beloved mural to help pay off some $20 million in debt. But rumors to that effect sparked outrage among artists, professors and city leaders—and the plan came to nothing.

Word of the effort to save the art institute comes amid mounting concerns about the fate of the storied Russian Hill campus.

In June, real estate company Cushman & Wakefield announced it had been tasked with selling the historic campus, including Rivera’s 1931 mural. The original 1926 structure, designed by architects Bakewell and Brown, includes the bell tower, interior courtyard, Anne Bremer library, classrooms, galleries and offices.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed it will all work out,” Peskin said.