SFAI History

Encompassing some of the most significant art movements of the last century, SFAI has historically embodied a spirit of experimentation, risk-taking, and innovation.

Since 1871, SFAI has attracted individuals who push beyond boundaries to discover uncharted artistic terrain. With an ever-expanding roster of esteemed faculty and alumni, robust exhibitions and public programs, and a mission dedicated to the intrinsic value of art, SFAI is poised to expand upon the West Coast legacy of radical innovation that grounds SFAI’s philosophy for another century.

San Francisco Art Association (SFAA) is founded
, open to artists for monthly dues of $1. 

The first public showing of a moving picture occurs at SFAA with Eadweard Muybridge’s presentation of his Zoopraxiscope

A group of women artists—in response to the men-only Spring Shows sponsored annually by SFAA — hold the first women-only exhibition.

The school is renamed San Francisco Institute of Art.

The school is renamed California School of Fine Arts (CSFA).

Alumnus Rea Irvin, the first art editor of The New Yorker, designs the magazine’s now-iconic typeface and creates the character Eustace Tilley, who graces the cover of the first issue.

800 Chestnut Street: The school moves to its current campus in a new building designed by Bakewell and Brown, architects of City Hall and Coit Tower. 

Alumnus Gutzon Borglum begins work on his very large-scale public sculpture Mount Rushmore.

Mexican muralist Diego Rivera creates The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City in the school’s gallery. 

Alumna Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s photos help define a new American style of fashion photography that is wholesome yet sophisticated. She works for Harper’s Bazaar from 1938–1958. 

The War Relocation Authority hires faculty member Dorothea Lange to document the internment of Japanese Americans. The photographs are then confiscated, and do not appear until 2006 when Impounded is published by W.W. Norton. 

Ansel Adams founds the first fine art photography department. Faculty include Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Minor White, Edward Weston, and Lisette Model.

Douglas McAgy becomes director of CSFA. He hires Clyfford Still, Hassel Smith, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Richard Diebenkorn, and invites New York artists Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt to teach summer sessions, making the school a hub for Abstract Expressionism

Sidney Peterson teaches the first film course at the school. The class produces The Cage

The school hosts the Western Roundtable of Art at the San Francisco Museum of Art, with Marcel Duchamp, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gregory Bateson, among others. The objective of the roundtable is to “expose hidden assumptions” and to frame new questions about art.

Faculty member Minor White becomes the first editor of Aperture magazine, with faculty member Dorothea Lange’s work appearing on the first cover.

Allen Ginsberg gives the first public reading of HOWL at an art space founded by alumni, Six Gallery, during alumnus and faculty member Fred Martin’s exhibition Crate Sculptures.

William T. Wiley, Robert Hudson, and William Allen arrive at CSFA. Along with other students— Manuel Neri, Bill Brown, Arlo Acton, Joan Brown, Alvin Light, Bill Geis, and Carlos Villa—they become the core of the Bay Area Funk art movement

The school is renamed San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). It expands the definition of art to include performance, conceptual art, graphic arts, and political and social documentary.

Sculptor and conceptual artist Bruce Nauman begins teaching at SFAI, with filmmaker Peter Hutton among his students. 

Abstract painter Sam Tchakalian joins the faculty and is a major force in the Painting Department for the next 35 years. Among many others, he mentored alumna Kathryn Bigelow (Academy Award–winning director of The Hurt Locker), who credits him with her early success as a painter in New York. 

Annie Leibovitz begins photographing for Rolling Stone magazine while still a student. She becomes the magazine’s official photographer in 1973. 

Alumni Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones document the early days of the Black Panther Party in Northern California; the photographs are exhibited at the de Young Museum. 

Student Paul McCarthy begins work on a series of performances called Instructions

Jay DeFeo’s painting The Rose is installed in the McMillan Conference Room. The painting remains at SFAI until the Whitney Museum of American Art acquires it in 1995. During the 26 years that it remained on campus, students were known to leave roses on or around the work in homage to DeFeo.

SFAI expands with a new addition by Paffard Keatinge-Clay.

With a letter from the NEA certifying them as artists, alumni Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel are given access to the photo archives of over 80 federal agencies and corporations. The result is Evidence, an exhibition at SFMOMA in 1977. 

Activist, philosopher, and writer Angela Davis joins the faculty to teach aesthetics. 

Alumnus Don Ed Hardy opens Tattoo City in San Francisco’s Mission district, pioneering the style of fine-line black and grey tattoos. 

Alumna Mollie Katzen illustrates and publishes the vegetarian Moosewood Cookbook. The cookbook becomes one of the top 10 bestselling cookbooks of all time. 

Faculty Sharon Grace organizes Send/Receive, a satellite project in which artists in the SFAI Lecture Hall and at the World Trade Center in New York create an interactive transcontinental performance.

SFAI is at the center of the Punk music scene, with students Freddy (a.k.a. Fritz) of the Mutants, Penelope Houston of the Avengers, and Debora Iyall and Frank Zincavage of Romeo Void

Alumna Betsy Sussler founds Bomb magazine in New York.

SFAI makes a video featuring Saturday Night Live satirical character Father Guido Sarducci (played by Don Novello).

Alumna Roxanne Quimby begins a small craft enterprise with beeswax, which later becomes Burt’s Bees.

The performance work of alumna Karen Finley (and others) sparks national debate (and a Supreme Court trial) when a grant recommended by the National Endowment for the Arts is vetoed by the NEA Chairman.

An anonymous artist in the early 1980s alters the Diego Rivera mural at SFAI by adding a hammer and sickle to a medallion on a central figure. Legend has it that the artist intended to preserve Rivera’s original intentions and underscore his Communist politics. In 1990, the alteration/defacement was discovered, and conservators were brought in—they removed what turned out to be toothpaste

The Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) is established by a volunteer collective of six Mission residents, including alumni Aaron Noble and Rigo23. Clarion Alley becomes a key site for the development of the aesthetic known as the Mission School. 

Devendra Banhart enrolls at SFAI and starts writing songs while in Bill Berkson’s poetry class.  

Peter Pau, film alumnus, receives an Academy Award for cinematography for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. 

Students Mitch Temple, Dennis McNulty, and Nathan Suter form Root Division, a community art collective dedicated to art education.

MacArthur “genius” grants in the visual arts are awarded to alumni Toba Khedoori and Liza Lou

Alumnus Lance Acord is the cinematographer for Sophia Coppola’s award-winning Lost in Translation.

Everything Matters, a retrospective of the work of faculty member Paul Kos, opens at the Berkeley Art Museum and travels to New York, San Diego, and Cincinnati.

Longtime faculty member Bill Berkson publishes the collection The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings 1985–2003.

Alumnus Manuel Neri receives the International Sculpture Center’s 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award.

A retrospective exhibition, Henry Wessel: Photographs, at SFMOMA honors the longtime faculty member.

City Studio, SFAI’s year-round program for underserved youth, receives an award from the NEA.

Alumna Jennifer M. Kroot releases a documentary, It Came From Kuchar, about the life and work of longtime film professor George Kuchar and his twin brother Mike.

Alumna Kathryn Bigelow becomes the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director, for her film The Hurt Locker

SFAI faculty and Cuban ex-patriot Tony Labat returns to Havana for a one-person exhibition at the Wifredo Lam Center. It is the first time his work is shown in Cuba.

The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives presents, Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, which documents the history of SFAI’s Film and New Genres programs and features dozens of alumni and faculty, including Bruce Connor, Stan Brakhage, Robert Nelson, James Broughton, Sidney Peterson, Anne McGuire, George Kuchar, Jay Rosenblatt, and Craig Baldwin.

SFAI faculty member Carlos Villa launches the Re-Historicizing project, bringing visibility to artists of color and women artists in the Bay Area in the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

SFAI celebrates 140 years of art and ideas. 

The collaborative project space Will Brown is founded in the Mission by alumnus Jordan Stein.

Alumnus Kehinde Wiley’s solo exhibition The World Stage: Israel opens at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Alumna Annie Leibovitz’s exhibition Pilgrimage opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Walter and McBean Galleries debut the exhibition ENERGY THAT IS ALL AROUND, featuring SFAI alumni Barry McGee, Ruby Neri, and Alicia McCarthy, along with Mission School artists Chris Johanson and Margaret Kilgallen. The exhibition travels to NYU in 2014.

The Walter and McBean Galleries exhibition Francis Cape: Utopian Benches continues SFAI’s practice of creating space for dialogue by offering shared seating on 17 poplar benches replicated from utopian communities.