Like many colleges and universities around the country, the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) could never have imagined it would be celebrating commencement online this year. Much less, however, did it imagine that it could be the 150-year-old institution’s last commencement ever.
In late March, the SFAI said that it might close its doors permanently this year. The school had already been financially struggling in recent years and was seeking to merge with another institution. When the pandemic hit, it simply “reached an impasse,” as President Gordon Knox and Board of Trustees Chair Pam Rorke Levy wrote in an email to the SFAI community.
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Since then, the institution says it has received an “outpouring of support” and is looking to operate “in a leaner, more focused manner.” Starting in the fall, it plans to continue offering art classes and public education programs, but will be “suspending degree programs.”
This new reality weighed palpably on the online commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 16. Two illustrious alumni, artists Catherine Opie and Nao Bustamante, were bestowed with an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts and delivered poignant speeches. Bustamente, wearing a lovely crown of leaves around her head and neck, gave two pieces of advice: “Don’t be an asshole” and “follow the love.”
Opie, who emphasized how “unfathomable” it was to her that an institution like SFAI could close, said: “We can’t think of the potential closing of this institution as the death of the institution.” She went on to honor historical moments at SFAI, including it being the first place where Eadweard Muybridge ever showed the “Zoöpraxiscope.”
Shara Mays, who graduated this year, was moved by the alumni’s words. “We’re all heartbroken that SFAI may permanently close its doors, but Catherine framed the closure and the future in a way that makes sense… advising us to continue the rich legacy that SFAI has given us,” Mays said.
Another graduating student, evan pettilgio, observed of the commencement, “It felt a bit like watching the finale episode of your favorite TV show; extremely bittersweet, something you will probably rewatch throughout your life.”
Also devastating for students was having their MFA exhibition — their culminating project before graduating — canceled. Like many other art schools, SFAI decided to host the exhibition online. According to one student, T Shell, some were disappointed that students weren’t able to give more input into how this would look, and they would’ve hoped for a “real live virtual exhibition space.”
Graduate Mónica Coelho echoed the frustration that the school didn’t collaborate with the students, and added, “there was no time to think about what would it mean to present work like this. Or to prepare work for this format.” Coelho is one of many students who had to change at the last-minute which artwork to display for her MFA show — originally, she was going to install a complex installation of metal boxes that would’ve collected water from the San Francisco bay. “Presenting pictures online is not a great solution to present my work,” Coelho wrote over email. In the end, she chose to share work from her Guideline Series, in which she reflects on “waiting spaces” through delicate cyanotypes of what appear like ghostly chairs.
In a trend that I’ve observed across online MFA shows, some students decided to make work specifically in response to the pandemic. Hansen Yang, for instance, made a video in which he interviewed Chinese international students during the early days of the pandemic; many of these students planned to return home, only to have their flights canceled.
The SFAI website essentially presents student work as a slideshow, with accompanying artist statements and links to the artists’ websites should visitors wish to explore further. “We felt that this format provided a deeper viewing experience for the work of each graduating artist now entering the world as a professional artist,” said Zeina Barakeh, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs.
It’s not the most sophisticated presentation, for sure, but you can still get a sense for the artists’ work. And, based on the MFA shows I’ve perused thus far, SFAI’s presents some of the most compelling projects. Below are a few highlights from the graduating class, which could end up being the last, and therefore historic, class of SFAI.
The San Francisco Art Institute’s 2020 MFA Exhibition continues online through June 20.