With the San Francisco Art Institute’s recent announcement that it may be forced to close, we wanted to take the opportunity over the next few weeks to highlight just how critical the Institute has been in shaping art in the Bay Area and beyond. Given the fact that so many of the artists we work with studied or taught there (or both), we hope that its current financial difficulties and the pressures of the coronavirus will not be the end of this exceptional legacy.
In 1945, Douglas MacAgy, a former curator at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMoMA), was hired to lead the school. By the end of the decade, he had transformed the program into one of the leading experimental hubs in the United States. Ansel Adams and Minor White began the school’s first photography department in 1946; Sidney Peterson founded Workshop 20 and launched the film program the following year. Meanwhile, visiting artists such as Mark Rothko, Stanley Hayter, Evsa Model and Ad Reinhardt were teaching alongside faculty such as David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Claire Falkenstein, Clay Spohn, Hassel Smith, Jean Varda and Clyfford Still.
Above all, the school was transformed into an incubator for experimentation and new ideas. Students from all over the country were making it a destination, many of whom would go on to careers that defined art from the Bay Area. Beyond the free-spirited and collaborative atmosphere, MacAgy described the program as “not foster[ing] any particular school of painting” and “strongly contemporary in spirit.” As an example, this is a cross-section of students at the school c. 1949-50: Jeremy Anderson, Roy De Forest, Richard Diebenkorn, Hayward King, Frank Lobdell, Robert Morris, Deborah Remington, Peter Saul.
Unless otherwise noted, all images are courtesy the San Francisco Art Institute Archives. With thanks to the irreplaceable Jeff Gunderson for his assistance with this project.
Images 4,6. Photo William Heick; 9. courtesy the Deborah Remington Charitable Trust for the Visual Arts.