The school has been home to renowned artists such as painters Elmer Bischoff (lower left), Hassel Smith (on shoulders),
and David Park (top right, with saw), pictured preparing for a 1949 party themed "The Unknown."
Photograph by Frederick Quandt, Jr. 

sfai history

For more than 140 years, SFAI has been a magnet for adventurous artists, and central to the development of many of the country’s most notable art movements.


Founded in 1871 by artists, writers, and community leaders who possessed a cultural vision for the West, the San Francisco Art Association (SFAA) became a locus for artists and thinkers. Three years later, SFAA launched The California School of Design, which was renamed California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) in 1916 and then the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961.

During its first 60 years, influential artists associated with the school included Eadweard Muybridge, photographer and pioneer of motion graphics; Maynard Dixon, painter of San Francisco’s labor movement and of the landscape of the West; Henry Kiyama, whose Four Immigrants Manga was the first graphic novel published in the U.S.; Sargent Claude Johnson, one of the first African-American artists from California to achieve a national reputation; Louise Dahl-Wolfe, an innovative photographer whose work for Harper’s Bazaar in the 1930s defined a new American style of “environmental” fashion photography; John Gutzon Borglum, the creator of the large-scale public sculpture known as Mt. Rushmore; and numerous others. In 1930, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera arrived in San Francisco to paint a mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, at the school’s new campus on Chestnut Street.

New Programs and New Questions

After World War II, the school became a nucleus for Abstract Expressionism, with faculty including Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Clay Spohn. Although painting and sculpture were the dominant mediums for many years, photography had also been among the course offerings. In 1946, Ansel Adams and Minor White established the first fine art photography department in the U.S., with Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange among its instructors. In 1947, distinguished filmmaker Sydney Peterson began the first film courses at CSFA. In this spirit of advancement, in 1949 CSFA Director Douglas MacAgy organized an international conference, The Western Roundtable on Modern Art, which included Marcel Duchamp, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gregory Bateson. The object of the roundtable was to expose “hidden assumptions” and to frame new questions about art.

Beats, Jazz, and Funk

By the early 1950s, San Francisco’s North Beach was the West Coast center of the Beat Movement, and music, poetry, and discourse were an intrinsic part of artists’ lives. Collage artist Jess (Collins) renounced a career as a plutonium developer and enrolled at CSFA as a painting student. In 1953 he and his partner, poet Robert Duncan, along with painter Harry Jacobus, started the King Ubu Gallery, an important alternative space for art, poetry, and music.

A distinctly Californian modern art soon emerged that fused abstraction, figuration, narrative, and jazz. CSFA faculty Park, Bischoff, James Weeks, and Richard Diebenkorn were now the leaders of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, informed by their experience of seeing local museum exhibitions of work by Edvard Munch, Max Beckmann, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Students at the school, including William T. Wiley, Robert Hudson, William Allan, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Carlos Villa, and Wally Hedrick, continued the investigation of new ideas and new materials, becoming the core of the Funk Movement.

Hybrids, Mutants, and Robots

Renamed the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961, SFAI refuted the distinction between fine and applied arts. SFAI was at the forefront of recognizing an expanded vocabulary of art making that was a hybrid of many practices including performance, conceptual art, new media, graphic arts, typography, and political and social documentary.

Among the students in the late 1960s were Annie Leibovitz, who would soon begin photographing for Rolling Stone magazine; Paul McCarthy, well-known for his performance and sculpture works; and Charles Bigelow, who would be among the first typographers to design fonts for computers. Alumni Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones were documenting the early days of the Black Panther Party in northern California.

Installation art, video, music, and social activism continued to inform much of the work of faculty and students in the 1970s and ’80s. The faculty during this period included George Kuchar, Gunvor Nelson, Howard Fried, Paul Kos, Angela Davis, Kathy Acker, Robert Colescott, Bill Berkson, and many other influential artists and writers. Among the students were a number of performance artists and musicians, including Karen Finley, whose performances challenged notions of femininity and political power, and Prairie Prince and Michael Cotten, who presented their first performance as the Tubes in the SFAI lecture hall, and became pioneers in the field of music video. The school became a hub for the Punk music scene, with bands such as the Mutants, the Avengers, and Romeo Void all started by SFAI students. Technology also became part of art practice: faculty Sharon Grace’s Send/Receive project used satellite communications to create an interactive transcontinental performance, while Survival Research Laboratory, founded by student Mark Pauline, began staging large-scale outdoor performances of ritualized interactions among machines, robots, and pyrotechnics.

Art in the Streets

Since the 1990s, the studio and classroom have become increasingly connected to the world via public art and community actions. As students at SFAI, Barry McGee, Aaron Noble, and Rigo 23, among others, were part of the movement known as the Mission School, taking their graffiti-inspired art to the streets and walls of the city. Faculty and students have created site-specific projects in locations from the San Francisco waterfront (Ann Chamberlain and Walter Hood’s monument to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, Mexico (a sculpture by artist Pedro Reyes and SFAI students for the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program). Organizations like Artists’ Television Access (ATA) and Root Division, founded by alumni, and SFAI’s City Studio program engage and educate local communities and cultivate a vital artistic ecosystem.

Recent Accomplishments

As SFAI celebrates its 140th Anniversary, faculty, students, and alumni continue to investigate and further define contemporary art and the role of artists in today’s global society. Their accomplishments can be found in museums and galleries around the world, in bookstores and movie theaters, online, in the civic sphere, and elsewhere: from Catherine Opie at the Guggenheim to Enrique Chagoya at the Berkeley Art Museum to Kehinde Wiley at the National Portrait Gallery; from Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker to Lynn Hershman Leeson’s acclaimed documentary !Women Art Revolution; from Don Ed Hardy’s 30 books on the art of tattooing to Betsy Sussler’s BOMB magazine; from the Art Collider, a digital platform for facilitating global media collaborations, to Transit/Stasis, a collaborative student project about the intersection of art and urban movement.

Building on this tradition of excellence and innovation, SFAI remains committed to educating artists who will shape the future of art, culture, and society.