The San Francisco Art Institute is dead, but its students are still paying the price

By the time I left SFAI as a sophomore, I had taken out enough student loans to buy a small 7-acre island in Nova Scotia.
Eric Risberg/AP

When you’re an adult and look back on the places that you spent time in as a kid, chances are, they feel remarkably smaller than you remember. But 12 years later, that’s not the case with the San Francisco Art Institute, the gray monolith that now sits alone and empty in Russian Hill.

The school, once famous for its maximalist Halloween parties and illustrious faculty, which included the likes of Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Mark Rothko, recently made headlines after it graduated its final class — marking the end of a 151-year saga as one of the oldest art institutions on the West Coast. In a somber July 15 press release, it announced that it couldn’t survive amid ongoing financial troubles, low enrollment and a failed USF acquisition that left the school gasping for air. 

Like many former students and alumni, I have strong, mixed emotions about its closure and even stronger feelings about the complicated legacy it left behind. In many ways, it feels like I’m grieving the loss of a troubled relative or partner, one that I have had to push away but still share lifelong memories with. 

Most of these memories are “firsts” that I got to experience in SFAI’s pre-college program: A monthlong summer program where teenagers got to live in a dorm in downtown San Francisco and simulate college life. When my parents dropped me off on the corner of Sutter and Taylor, I was just 15 years old. 

A collage I made of my friend Jeremy during the SFAI pre-college program. 

A collage I made of my friend Jeremy during the SFAI pre-college program. 

Ariana Bindman, way back when

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this program changed me: At the height of the indie sleaze era, it was where I first fell in love and had my first real kiss (unfortunately, it was actually at the AMC theater on Van Ness, but I usually spare that detail). It was where, for the first time, I felt a deep sense of community among my peers, some of whom I still stay in touch with well over a decade later. These experiences were invaluable, and my friend Jeremy Cain — whom I still exchange postcards with — says he met people “worth staying connected to for life.”

A year later, it only seemed natural to graduate high school early and enroll in SFAI’s bachelor degree program. I didn’t really know who I was yet, but I knew that I loved taking pictures, so I decided to pursue photography. But once I settled in, students around me started dropping out or transferring after just two semesters, sometimes less. That’s when I began to notice that many of us, including myself, were falling into a black hole of student loan debt — and without academic credits that transferred to public universities.  

As of 2020, SFAI had just a 39.2% graduation rate, and it’s clear why: Previously, KQED’s Sarah Hotchkiss reported that a four-year degree from the “nonprofit” school cost nearly $280,000. The median tuition cost $45,664, a staggering $31,264 more than the average cost of special focus institutions, according to Data USA.  

By the time I left as a sophomore, I had taken out enough student loans to buy a small 7-acre island in Nova Scotia.

So when I arrived at San Francisco City College’s administrative office and discovered that hardly any of my credits transferred to local state schools — meaning that I had to start all over — my mental health spiraled. So did my life’s course. 

The entrance leading to SFAI's library. 

The entrance leading to SFAI's library. 

Cat Beckstrand

After years of “taking breaks” from school, working minimum wage jobs and navigating San Francisco State University’s strict matriculation standards, it made me question whether I even had the strength to get a degree at all. That’s when the panic attacks started. And the racing thoughts. And the dissociative episodes that nearly landed me in a hospital. Regardless, I maintained this emotional and financial balancing act for nearly a decade. Looking back, it nearly broke me. 

Right now, my family is appealing to wipe out my student loans, but it’s not yet clear whether that burden will ever be lifted, or if my wounds will ever truly heal from this experience. 

That’s why when I see poor, idiotic grassroots campaigns to save SFAI — an institution that was so cruelly expensive it forced 90% of domestic students to take out loans they will likely spend their whole lives paying back — I want to shake organizers by their shoulders and scream, “STOP.”  There are so many ways to support artists, and the best way to do that is to give them money directly as opposed to letting some incompetent middleman fumble the bag. 

Savash, Cat's co-worker at the school library. 

Savash, Cat's co-worker at the school library. 

Cat Beckstrand

Aside from the financial and emotional turmoil SFAI caused me, it also nearly prevented me from becoming the journalist I am today. Some of my instructors’ critiques were so unnecessarily harsh and personal, I actually quit taking photos for a while. I couldn’t stand getting torn down in front of my classmates for my shoddy darkroom work, even though I was trying the best I could. Years later, when I picked up my digital camera and started publishing photo essays for small news outlets, I finally became the photographer I always wanted to be. But I’m not the only student who took issue with the way we were sometimes critiqued by the teachers who were meant to help us. 

“If I or another student didn’t make work in the exact way that they felt that we should, we were criticized pretty heavily for it,” said my friend Cat Beckstrand, a San Francisco photographer and SFAI alum who uses they/them pronouns. “I was kind of shocked to experience that in a fine art setting.”

Students would sunbathe, smoke, and overlook the skyline on the roof.

Students would sunbathe, smoke, and overlook the skyline on the roof.

Cat Beckstrand

Beckstrand, who transferred from community college and graduated from SFAI’s urban studies department, said the school was “classist” and inhospitable to low-income students. At the time, they say photography instructors told them to use entire rolls of film for just one project. These days, a roll of 35 mm black-and-white film costs anywhere from about $8.50 to $13. “And I remember telling my instructors I literally cannot afford to work that way and spend that much money on rolls,” they said. In response, instructors allegedly told them that “they didn’t care” and that they just had to “make it work.” 

My own experience was quite similar. To this day, I’m still furious that one of my photography instructors derided me and my ideas in critique, only to use the same ones for their own editorial projects in The California Sunday Magazine and National Geographic years later.

When asked whether SFAI had programs to support low-income students, if a degree from SFAI still retained its academic value or if student loans would still have to be repaid, press representative Margot Frey tersely responded, “We don’t have any employees anymore, so we do not have anyone to answer these questions.”

The roof was a popular hangout for students in between classes.

The roof was a popular hangout for students in between classes.

Cat Beckstrand

“My entire art degree just feels like a receipt,” said Oskar Malone Peyak, who graduated in 2016. While he agrees that he had an incredible community of artists and professors, he concedes that the administration let down many students. He also said they dropped out or transferred because they couldn’t afford to keep paying the tuition. It’s a story that hits close to home. “It’s worked for some people, but like the majority, not really,” he continued. “... From an institutional standpoint, mostly everything I taught myself.”

Underneath SFAI’s Instagram post about its closure, one alum, Jerry Gogosian, commented that he paid $175,000 for a “useless” degree. “This school had a history of financial misappropriation, poor leadership, and NEGLIGENT education practices for its students,” he wrote. “It deserves to close.”

But on the contrary, some students say the SFAI experience was about more than just the classroom. 

Anthony Russell, who graduated in 2012, cherished getting to learn from cult filmmaker George Kuchar and look up to legendary Bay Area artists Carlos Villa and Richard Berger. For Russell, SFAI was his “anchor” that brought him to the city and helped him build an artistic community. But he, too, noticed that few students graduated from the school.

Sophia Germer, a pre-college alum who's now a staff photographer at the Advocate in Louisiana. 

Sophia Germer, a pre-college alum who's now a staff photographer at the Advocate in Louisiana. 

Ariana Bindman, way back when

He said he couldn’t afford to walk away from the “brutally expensive” institution since he had already sunk so much money into it. “I’m definitely mad. It was so expensive,” he said, “but I knew it would be, and I knew that it was not something that necessarily guaranteed me income to pay off the debt that I was accruing, but I don’t regret it.”

Russell, who works at the Lab, an arts nonprofit and performance space in San Francisco, gets by on art handling and voice acting gigs for adult films. He said that while college life at SFAI taught him how to socialize and establish friendships in the creative world, the school didn’t guide him on how to find a job and build a career. “I do wish that there was more instruction on how to navigate that professionally,” he said. I did, too. 

The San Francisco Art Institute on a sunny spring day.

The San Francisco Art Institute on a sunny spring day.

Diana Cheng/FlickrVision/Getty Images

A long time ago, while looking through school marketing materials and picking out classes for the fall semester, I read that SFAI made some of its students who they are today. But in my case, I’m relieved it didn’t.