SFAI closes with a legacy of student debt

When you’re an adult and think back to the places you spent time as a kid, chances are they feel noticeably 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 on Russian Hill.

The school, once famous for its maximalist Halloween parties and illustrious teachers, who included Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Mark Rothko, recently made headlines after graduating from school – marking the end of a 151-year saga as one of the oldest arts institutions on the West Coast. In a dark July 15 press releasehe announced he could not survive amid ongoing financial problems, low enrollment, and a failed USF acquisition that left the school on the edge.

Like many former students and alumni, I have strong and mixed emotions about his closure and even stronger feelings about the complicated legacy he left behind. In many ways, I feel like I’m mourning the loss of a troubled parent or partner, a parent I had to push away but with whom I still share lifelong memories.

Most of these memories are “firsts” I experienced as part of SFAI’s pre-college program: a month-long summer program where teens were able to live in a dorm in downtown San Francisco and simulate college life. When my parents dropped me off at the corner of Sutter and Taylor, I was only 15.

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

Ariana Bindman, a long time ago

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

A year later, it seemed natural to finish high school early and enroll in the SFAI bachelor’s program. I didn’t really know who I was yet, but I knew I loved taking pictures, so I decided to pursue photography. But once I settled in, the students around me started dropping out or transferring after just two semesters, sometimes less. That’s when I started noticing that many of us, myself included, were falling into a black hole of student loan debt — and no college credits transferred to public universities.

In 2020, SFAI only had one 39.2% graduation rateand we understand why: previously, KQED’s Sarah Hotchkiss reported that a four-year degree from the “nonprofit” school cost nearly $280,000. The median tuition costs $45,664, which is $31,264 more than the average cost for specialized institutions, according to Data USA.

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

So when I arrived at the administrative office at San Francisco City College and found that almost none of my credits were transferring to local public schools—meaning I had to start all over again—my sanity took a turn for the worse. is deteriorated. Thus followed the course of my life.

The entrance leading to the SFAI library.

The entrance leading to the SFAI library.

Beckstrand Cat

After years of “taking breaks” from school, working minimum-wage jobs, and navigating San Francisco State University’s strict enrollment standards, it made me wonder if I even had the strength to get a diploma. That’s when the panic attacks started. And racing thoughts. And the dissociative episodes that nearly landed me in the hospital. Either way, I maintained this emotional and financial balance for almost a decade. Looking back, it almost broke me.

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

That’s why, when I see poor and stupid popular campaigns to save the SFAI – an institution that cost so cruelly that it forced 90% of national students to take out loans that they will probably spend a lifetime repaying – I want to shake the organizers by the shoulders and shout “STOP”. There are so many ways to support artists, and the best way to do that is to give them money directly instead of letting some incompetent middleman fumble the bag.

Savash, Cat's colleague in the school library.

Savash, Cat’s colleague in the school library.

Beckstrand Cat

Apart from the financial and emotional upheaval the SFAI caused me, it also nearly prevented me from becoming the journalist I am today. Some of my instructor reviews were so unnecessarily harsh and personal that I stopped taking pictures for a while. I couldn’t stand being tossed in front of my classmates for my shoddy darkroom work, even though I tried my best. Years later, when I got my digital camera back and started publishing photo essays for small media 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 criticized by the teachers who were supposed to help us.

“If I or another student didn’t do the job exactly the way they thought we should, we got pretty heavily criticized for that,” said my friend Cat Beckstrand, a San Francisco photographer and alumnus of the SFAI which uses the pronouns them/them. . “I was a bit shocked to experience this in an artistic setting.”

The students were sunbathing, smoking and overlooking the horizon on the roof.

The students were sunbathing, smoking and overlooking the horizon on the roof.

Beckstrand Cat

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 a single project. These days, a roll of 35mm black and white film costs between about $8.50 and $13. “And I remember telling my instructors that I literally couldn’t afford to work that way and spend so much money on rolls,” they said. In response, the 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 professors mocked me and my ideas in the review, only to use the same for their own editorial projects in The California Sunday Magazine and National Geographic years later. late.

When asked if the SFAI had any programs to support low-income students, if an SFAI degree still retained its academic value, or if student loans still had to be repaid, press secretary Margot Frey replied tersely. “We no longer have employees. , so we have no one to answer these questions.

The rooftop was a popular meeting place for students between classes.

The rooftop was a popular meeting place for students between classes.

Beckstrand Cat

“My whole art degree feels like a receipt,” said 2016 graduate Oskar Malone Peyak. While he agrees he had an incredible community of artists and teachers, he admits the administration let down many students. He also said they dropped out or transferred because they couldn’t afford to keep paying tuition. It is a story that touches us closely. “It worked for some people, but like the majority, not really,” he continued. “… From an institutional point of view, especially everything that I learned myself.”

Under Instagram post from SFAI about its closure, an alumnus, Jerry Gogosian, said he paid $175,000 for a “useless” degree. “This school had a history of financial embezzlement, poor leadership, and NEGLIGENT educational practices for its students,” he wrote. “It deserves to close”

But on the contrary, some students say the SFAI experience was not limited to the classroom.

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

Sophia Germer, a pre-college alumnus who is now a photographer at the Advocate in Louisiana.

Sophia Germer, a pre-college alumnus who is now a photographer at the Advocate in Louisiana.

Ariana Bindman, a long time ago

He said he couldn’t afford to leave the “brutally expensive” institution since he had already invested so much money in it. “I am definitely angry. It was so expensive,” he said, “but I knew it would be, and I knew it wasn’t something that necessarily guaranteed me an income to pay off the debt I was accumulating, but I don’t regret it.

Russell, who works at The Lab, a non-profit arts and performance space in San Francisco, gets by with art manipulation and voice acting gigs for adult films. He said that while college life at SFAI taught him how to socialize and build friendships in the creative world, the school did not guide him on how to find a job and build a career. “I wish there were more instructions on how to sail 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

Long ago, while browsing the school’s marketing materials and choosing classes for the fall semester, I read that SFAI had made some of its students who they are today. But in my case, I’m relieved that’s not the case.

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