Gagosian Quarterly

Fall 2021 Issue

The San Francisco Art Institute: Its History and Future

Constance lewallen marks the 150th anniversary of the san francisco art institute, exploring the school’s evolution and pioneering faculty, as well as current challenges and the innovations necessary for its preservation..

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Diego Rivera, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City , 1931, installation view, San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). Artwork © Banco de México Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico City/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: courtesy SFAI

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Constance Lewallen (1939–2022) was adjunct curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, where she was first matrix curator, subsequently senior curator, and organized many major exhibitions. Photo: Nathaniel Dorsky

It’s a cruel irony that just as the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) is celebrating its 150th anniversary, it is struggling to survive. Alas, it is not an isolated case: many institutions of higher learning, especially art schools, with fewer than a thousand students have been under financial strain for a number of years. According to Deborah Obalil, president and executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD), most have needed to change their operating structure in one way or another. Some stopped granting degrees (Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 2019); some have merged with colleges and universities (School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with Tufts University, in 2016); some, such as the Memphis College of Art, have closed altogether (2020). 1

Before we get into the specifics of what led to SFAI’s current crisis and what is being done to overcome it, we should know something of its remarkable history. The school’s roster of teachers and students, to say nothing of the guest lectures, conferences, and exhibitions that have taken place there over the years, speaks to why it has occupied such a critical role in the cultural life of the region.

The oldest art school in the West was born in 1871 in the living room of a local painter, J. B. Wandesforde, who convened a group of artists and writers to discuss the establishment of a society to promote the arts. Until its recent travails, the school was a center of artistic activity in the Bay Area. In its early days, as the California School of Fine Arts, it was located on Nob Hill; in 1926 it moved to Chestnut Street, on Russian Hill, to a campus with sweeping views of the city and the bay. The design, by architects Bakewell & Brown, was inspired by a typical Italian hillside town, with its tower, piazza, and cathedral (the school’s gallery). 2

In 1930, Henri Matisse visited the new campus. “He said he had never seen such magnificent lighting and working conditions in Europe,” according to an account of his tour. 3 Not long after, Diego Rivera created his monumental fresco The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931) in the school’s student gallery, where it remains. The fresco portrays the creation of both a city and a mural and depicts several of the people who commissioned the work, as well as the artists, engineers, architects, and sculptors involved, but, as always, Rivera celebrates the common laborer, here epitomized by the outsize figure in the center. Rivera himself, paint brush and palette in hand, is shown from the rear, sitting on a beam as he supervises the project.

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Henri Matisse at SFAI, with Spencer Macky, dean (left), and Lee Randolph, director (right), 1930. Photo: courtesy SFAI

Rivera created three murals in San Francisco, all intact and available to the public. The SFAI mural is considered the standout, a prime example of his mastery of the medium, and has made the school an international destination for the study of his work. In 2019, Patti Smith performed in front of it; a passionate admirer of the Mexican artists of his generation, particularly Rivera himself and Frida Kahlo, and of the revolutionary spirit of their country, she wrote of the event, “It was a moving experience, to sing so close to his work. The historic SFAI is a jewel, a work centric atmosphere of communal process and artistic evolution.” 4

Since the middle of the twentieth century the school has been at or near the heart of each new national and regional artistic movement. After the end of World War II, its enrollment surged in part due to an influx of older artists taking advantage of the GI Bill. In his role as president of the school, legendary educator and curator Douglas MacAgy hired Elmer Bischoff, Dorr Bothwell, former student Richard Diebenkorn, Claire Falkenstein, David Park, Hassel Smith, and Clyfford Still, and invited New York artists Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko to teach summer sessions, making the school a center for Abstract Expressionism. Although Still was only at the school from 1946 to 1950, he was especially influential, espousing a romantic, intensely anticommercial view of the role of the artist that, as we shall see, persisted across departments long after he departed.

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Mark Rothko teaching at SFAI, 1949. Photo: William Heick, courtesy SFAI

The Painting Department continued to be the engine of the school. Major figures of the Bay Area Figurative movement Theophilus Brown and Paul Wonner, in addition to the aforementioned Bischoff, Diebenkorn, and Park, taught there for a time, and many students would become prominent artists, among them Dara Birnbaum, Don Ed Hardy (responsible for elevating tattoo to a fine art), Mike Henderson, Paul McCarthy, and Jason Rhoades. Kehinde Wiley, whom Barack Obama chose to paint his official presidential portrait in 2018, has said of his time there, “SFAI is where I honed in on my skills and identity as an artist, and I’ve carried that experience with me throughout my career.” 5

In the 1950s, it was the Beat era. Allen Ginsberg famously gave his first reading of Howl in 1955 at the Six Gallery, which was run by artists of the school. Jay DeFeo taught at SFAI even as her magnum opus The Rose (1958–66; now in the collection of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art) slowly deteriorated for years behind a temporary wall in the school’s conference room (it was conserved in that same location in 1995). DeFeo and fellow teachers Joan Brown, Bruce Conner, Wally Hedrick, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Kenneth Rexroth were key figures in the artistic and literary community that gave rise to the San Francisco Renaissance, a blossoming of underground art that transformed the city into a center of the avant-garde. Conner would later propose an undergraduate seminar described in the course catalogue as “Wasted Time: unproductive activity of no practical application.” 6

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Poster for “The Films of Bruce Conner,” SFAI, c. 1983, designed by Sharon Chickanzeff and Marcia Smith. Photo: courtesy SFAI

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Bill Berkson in front of Jay DeFeo’s painting The Rose (1958–66), 1995. Artwork © The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: courtesy SFAI

A decade later, Peter Selz included SFAI alumni Roy De Forest, Peter Saul, and William T. Wiley in his 1967 exhibition Funk , at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, which gave a name to this regional movement characterized by the personal, the antiformal, the irreverent, and, often, the crude. By that time SFAI was fully immersed in the counterculture, from anti–Vietnam War protests to the Black Liberation Movement. The gallery showed psychedelic rock posters in November 1966, Sun Ra performed in the courtyard in December 1968 and again in April 1969, and mind-expanding drugs were prevalent among faculty members and students. In that spirit, in 1966, several SFAI photography students organized The Experience , an exhibition of “hallucinatory photography among five people over a twelve-hour period” in which the artists took hallucinogenic drugs and collectively documented the experience. 7 Annie Leibovitz began photographing for Rolling Stone in 1968 while still a student (she became the magazine’s chief photographer in 1973). 8 SFAI faculty member James Robertson designed Artforum magazine, its square format mimicking that of the school’s catalogue; and alumni photographers Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones documented Black Panther rallies, Haight Street hippies, and Sausalito’s off-the-grid houseboat community. Angela Davis joined the faculty five or so years after being on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

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Pirkle Jones, Black Panthers and crowd, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland, CA , from A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers , 1968 © The Regents of the University of California; courtesy Special Collections, University Library, University of California, Santa Cruz, Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones Photographs

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Angela Davis teaching at SFAI, c. 1978. Photo: Julie McManus, courtesy SFAI

The school responded to the emergence of experimental performance, video, and Conceptual forms in the 1970s by establishing the Performance/Video Department (later renamed “New Genres”). The main members of the area’s nascent Conceptual scene populated the department: Howard Fried was the first chair, followed by Paul Kos (a former painting student at the school) and, soon after, Sharon Grace and Doug Hall. Eventually, former student Tony Labat joined the faculty, along with Kathy Acker. Guest instructors and visiting artists over the years have included Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Chris Burden, Terry Fox, the Kipper Kids, Shigeko Kubota, Gerhard Lischka, Mary Lucier, Linda Montano, Nam June Paik, David Ross, and Bonnie Sherk. Karen Finley was one of the department’s first students, and Nao Bustamante, Kota Ezawa, and David Ireland are among its many other notable graduates. The atmosphere was nonhierarchical, irreverent, open to all forms of expression. Kos described it as “arrogant and pompous. And humble and unassuming . . . brusque, brazen, and alive, welcoming and scary.” 9 Former student Carol Szymanski remembers, “Ours was a small, close-knit department, with no interaction with the other departments. I felt as though I was experiencing something very important about what art and life were and could be. Nothing was saddled with convention or history. It was all about the act of creating and discussing.” 10

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Kathy Acker reading from In Memoriam to Identity , SFAI, 1990. Photo: Sven Wiederholt, courtesy SFAI

Barry McGee, Alicia McCarthy, Ruby Neri, and Rigo 23, all SFAI graduates, were the core artists of San Francisco’s Mission School, which flourished during the 1990s and 2000s and grew from the region’s vibrant mural and graffiti street art. McGee summed up his experience as a student: “I think about all the weird kids and teachers, how we all came together in SF at 800 Chestnut. It’s one of the strongest art communities I have been involved with. SFAI is steeped in SF art history . . . the real deal. Its location and relaxed campus make it one of the last great art schools in America.” 11

From the beginning, film and photography have been central to the school’s curriculum. For starters, the first public showing of a moving picture occurred there in 1880 with Eadweard Muybridge’s presentation of his Zoopraxiscope. In 1945, Ansel Adams founded the country’s first department of art photography at SFAI, and hired leading photographers of the day including Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Lisette Model, Edward Weston, and Minor White. Other notable faculty followed: Jones, Ellen Brooks, Jerry Burchard, Linda Connor, John Collier, Reagan Louie, Larry Sultan, Henry Wessel, and current chair Lindsey White. Among those who studied in the department are Jim Goldberg, Sharon Lockhart, Mike Mandel, and Catherine Opie. While technique was taught in the foundation classes, the stress was always on innovation and experimentation. Leibovitz discovered her true talent was for photography in the department, although she was a painting major. (She also took a sculpture class taught by Bruce Nauman.) According to Leibovitz (and the same sentiment was expressed by several other former students), “A lot of schools teach you technique. At the [San Francisco Art Institute], they teach you how to see.” 12 Former student Jane Reed recalls, “We were a very close-knit group of people dedicated to making art for the creative impulse not the commercial return.” 13

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California School of Fine Arts (now SFAI) catalogue cover, 1940–41, featuring a photograph of the campus by Ansel Adams. Image: courtesy SFAI, reproduced with permission from The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

SFAI’s Film Department, established in 1969, became a home to the country’s burgeoning avant-garde filmmaking scene. (Well before that, beginning in 1947, the first noncommercial film classes anywhere were taught at the school by Sidney Peterson. Stan Brakhage studied at the school in the early 1950s.) Robert Nelson, the first filmmaker hired when the Film Department was established, set the tone, stressing self-expression and experimentation. Eventually the faculty included filmmakers James Broughton, Ernie Gehr, Lawrence Jordan, George Kuchar, and Gunvor Nelson, as well as famed film curator Edith Kramer. The department also established a residency program that attracted Chantal Akerman, Hollis Frampton, Carolee Schneemann, and others. Steve Anker, director of the San Francisco Cinematheque and, later, dean at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Los Angeles, as well as a faculty member at SFAI, organized regular screenings in the auditorium. Even when video was attracting students in the 1980s and ’90s, Anker would write, “Most students were still excited by the sensuality of celluloid.” 14

The department continues its commitment to avant-garde film while also teaching narrative and documentary approaches. Graduates include the Taiwanese installation artist Su-Chen Hung; Ruby Yang, who in 2007 received the Short Film Documentary Academy Award for The Blood of Yingzhou District , about HIV in China; Lance Acord, cinematographer on Sofia Coppola’s award-winning Lost in Translation (2003); and Kathryn Bigelow (a painting major who also studied film), whose film The Hurt Locker (2008) made her the first woman to win a Best Director Academy Award. In accepting the honorary doctorate bestowed on her by the school in 2013, Bigelow said that “art education really is vital and unique.” 15 Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who studied experimental filmmaking at SFAI, won the Academy Award for best documentary feature for Citizenfour (2014), and Peter Pau, who studied photography with Jones and filmmaking with Kuchar at the school in the 1980s, won an Academy Award for Cinematography for Ang Lee’s movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

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Sargent Johnson in his studio, Berkeley, California, c. 1930. Photo: Alpha Stock/Alamy Stock Photo

Sculpture, too, is vital to the program. Sargent Johnson, a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance, graduated from the school in 1923. In later decades, some of the area’s leading ceramic artists—Jim Melchert, Ron Nagle, Manuel Neri, and Richard Shaw—taught there full- or part-time, and Nauman was a part-time instructor in the department in the late 1960s. Stephanie Syjuco wrote of her experience as a student in the department,

SFAI has always been super experimental—many students were pushing the envelope in terms of performance, new genres, and conceptual works. . . . the program at SFAI created feral artists. . . . SFAI didn’t seem to care about training students toward even thinking about [the art market] at all. . . . The legacy of SFAI is huge and I will always remain thankful that I went there. SFAI felt a bit out of time and place, adhering to the primacy of a fine-arts degree over the decades while other schools added architecture and design programs to bolster their student numbers and financial support. But I do appreciate the purely fine arts focus it had, despite its potentially unmarketable reality. This defiance feels very much like the spirit of SFAI. 16

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John Cage speaking at SFAI, 1991. Photo: courtesy SFAI

The Humanities Department’s outstanding teachers attracted students throughout the school. Poet and art critic Bill Berkson taught art history and poetry classes. One of his students was singer/songwriter and visual artist Devendra Banhart, who says, “I am certain that without Bill Berkson’s guidance and encouragement I would 100% not have a career, no doubt about it.” 17 Other faculty included Davis (aesthetics), composer Charles Boone (music), and Bernard Mayes, the openly gay ordained priest and radio broadcaster who, in 1961, having learned of San Francisco’s high suicide rate, singlehandedly created the nation’s first suicide hotline.

Given the sheer breadth and ambition of the lectures and public programs that SFAI has hosted, the question is less who has spoken at the school than who hasn’t . For over twenty years, Berkson ran a speaker program that included not just artists of all stripes, from Robert Rauschenberg to David Hammons, but also prominent art critics and curators such as Arthur Danto, Lucy Lippard, and Walter Hopps, internationally recognized poets (John Ashbery), and cultural figures from Emory Douglas of the Black Panthers to John Cage and Rem Koolhaas. As for conferences, in 1949 MacAgy hosted the landmark “Western Roundtable on Modern Art.” 18 The object was simply to examine the art of that moment. To name just a few of the participants: cultural anthropologist Gregory Bateson (who also taught at the school), the artists Marcel Duchamp and Mark Tobey, the critic and art historian Robert Goldwater, the composers Darius Milhaud and Arnold Schoenberg, and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose antipathy to the avant-garde was on full display. Seventeen years later the school sponsored another conference, “The Current Moment in Art,” to assess the art of that era. It featured Hopps, Selz, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Larry Rivers, Frank Stella, Wayne Thiebaud, and others. 19 Between 1989 and 1991, former student and painting faculty member Carlos Villa organized a series of symposia, part of his “Worlds in Collision” project.

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“Western Roundtable on Modern Art,” SFAI, 1949. Photo: William Heick, courtesy SFAI

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Poster for the Spring 1985 lecture series at SFAI, designed by Peter Belsito. Photo: courtesy SFAI

I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the importance of the school’s gallery, which over the years and under its various directors has mounted many provocative shows. 20 Among them: The Hot Rod Aesthetic (1968); American Primitive and Naive Art (1970); 21 18' 6" × 6' 9" × 11' 2 1/2" × 47' 11 3/16" × 29' 8 1/2" × 31' 9 3/16" (1969), which brought the work of artists such as Michael Asher, Edward Kienholz, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner to SFAI and was an early example of institutional support for the Conceptual movement; and Other Sources: An American Essay (1976), a pioneering exhibition and performance series, organized by Villa, that celebrated cultural diversity and a more inclusive art world by showcasing the work and cultural traditions of artists of color. Another groundbreaking exhibition, Touch: Relational Art from the 1990s to Now (2002), cocurated by Karen Moss and Nicolas Bourriaud, featured an international roster of artists associated with Bourriaud’s concept of “relational aesthetics,” the first exhibition in the United States to fully explore the phenomenon of social interaction that Bourriaud had identified.

Despite its stellar history, the school reached a crisis point in March 2020. What went wrong? SFAI has had financial difficulties off and on for years but always rose phoenixlike from the proverbial ashes. There is not just one cause of the current dire circumstance; as noted earlier, SFAI is one among many art schools that are in jeopardy. Historically, most started as community-based art centers. Once they shifted to the category of degree-granting colleges, they were required to increase administrative staff to satisfy nonprofit guidelines and federal regulations, such as Title IX. AICAD’s Obalil observes that such costs never level off; they always increase. 22 Most art schools lack an ample endowment and traditionally have not attracted major philanthropy. Consequently, they rely on tuition. That leaves two options: raise tuition, which is usually quite steep (SFAI’s, which is fairly typical, is around $45,000), or increase the size of the student body. In the case of SFAI, neither one, nor even both, can meet the yearly operating budget of approximately $18 million.

In fact, enrollment in SFAI has fallen off in recent years from its peak of around 1,000 in the late 1960s and early ’70s to 300 or so in recent years. This was due in part to rising tuition costs and in part to a decrease in the number of foreign students, who traditionally have made up a good portion of the student body and who pay full tuition. Most other students take out substantial loans to finance their education, a deterrent when a fine-art degree doesn’t clearly lead to a financially secure career. In this way, SFAI’s dedication to a purely fine-arts education has made it difficult to attract students in today’s economy. Those art schools that also offer design and other applied arts, such as the California College of the Arts (CCA), based in San Francisco, have fared better.

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Plein air life drawing class, SFAI, c. 1958. Photo: courtesy SFAI

Then there was the decision to develop a second campus. In 2015, the school secured a sixty-year lease on one of the piers at nearby Fort Mason, a former military site administered by the National Park Service and now home to nonprofit arts-oriented venues. The school struck an attractive deal whereby Fort Mason offered a very favorable lease. In return the school was responsible for a much-needed, costly renovation. It seemed like a good idea at a time when enrollment was still relatively healthy and the school had outgrown the rented, rather dismal graduate studios and classrooms in the Dogpatch neighborhood across town. However, just as the new campus opened in 2017, enrollment began to decline (the school had lacked a director of admissions for over a year). Moreover, the fundraising goal for the build-out was not met—SFAI’s alumni base had been somewhat mystifyingly neglected—raising the debt to $19 million. 23 This resulted in a bank loan, the collateral for which was the Russian Hill property and all other assets of the school. The yearly interest was crushing.

By March 2020, it looked as if the school might not make it this time. The coup de grâce was that, just as negotiations to merge with the University of San Francisco, a local private Jesuit university, were all but finalized, the deal fell victim to the covi d -19 pandemic and other contributing factors. Once the merger collapsed, then-SFAI-president Gordon Knox and board chair Pam Rorke Levy announced that the school would not enroll new students in fall 2021 and laid off adjunct faculty and all but a skeleton staff. That so alarmed the community that there was a significant uptick in fundraising, which, along with the receipt of a second round of funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, averted the school’s closure. But what really saved the day was that the board was able to renegotiate the bank loan by reaching an agreement with the University of California, which assumed the loan and allowed SFAI six years to repay the debt, including a year of relief. The school was also able to secure permission from Fort Mason to sublet the new campus and found a short-term tenant, with others expressing interest in renting part or all of the space in the future—a viable arrangement as long as the tenant fits Fort Mason’s guidelines that it be a nonprofit.

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Flyer for a Sun Ra concert at SFAI, 1968. Photo: courtesy SFAI

In July 2020, the board created the Reimagine Committee, made up of SFAI faculty, alumni, staff, and artists unaffiliated with the school, along with local cultural leaders and external consultants. This body was charged with addressing the school’s problems and coming up with ideas on how to make it healthier economically and more relevant to today’s world. The committee identified many of the school’s weaknesses—a lack of transparency in its decision-making, for example—and proposed, among other ideas, decentralizing the current organizing structure in favor of collective leadership (a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach). Unfortunately, an adversarial relationship between the board and the committee ensued when the committee, which felt its findings weren’t sufficiently appreciated, announced that it wouldn’t present them to the board until then-chair Levy stepped down. Levy and other stalwarts had stayed on through the worst of the crisis and had fought to enable the school to stay open and to retain its tenured faculty.

The school was the subject of a great deal of negative press when it was leaked that negotiations were underway to monetize the Rivera mural. According to Levy and other trustees, it was the board’s fiduciary responsibility to investigate all avenues to shore up the school’s finances in the short term, including by selling the mural, while exploring longer-term solutions. The fresco was appraised at approximately $50 million, and it was hoped that a partner would endow it in place. 24 To that end, trustee and architect John Marx came up with a brilliant plan that would allow the fresco to remain in its present location by opening the gallery to the public (the gallery has an exterior wall facing the fresco). It could then become a pocket museum, classroom, and center for the study of fresco, conservation, Rivera, and the Mexican mural movement.

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Rendering of a proposal to add a new entrance to SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery, December 2020. Image: Form4 Architecture/Teapot

Former faculty artist Mildred Howard had drafted a petition signed by dozens of artists (both affiliated and unaffiliated with the school), curators, arts-organization leaders, and gallerists across the country, urging the sale of the fresco only as a last resort. Unfortunately, the press focused on the possibility of removing the mural, which was not the board’s preferred option; in fact it was vehemently opposed. For one thing, while the removal of the fresco from the wall is technically possible (although not without endangering it), on a symbolic level it would be tantamount to tearing the soul out of the school. This is a moot point now, since the fresco is up for landmark status, which, if achieved as expected, would decrease its value. (The Chestnut Street campus is itself landmarked.) The mural could still generate funds, however, if another donor is identified who would endow it in place, or by making it the focus of a public space such as Marx conceived, or, ideally, both.

The new board chair, the photographer, educator, and alumnus Lonnie Graham, is exploring ways to keep the school afloat for three years (he calls it a “runway”) while preparing for a long-term solution. To that end, he and the other trustees, now numbering seven (all but three had resigned during the Rivera controversy), have embarked on a series of listening tours with faculty, staff, alumni, and current students (who seem especially energized by being included) in order not only to hear their points of view but also to establish much-needed trust among these groups. If all goes well, the plan is to be able to rehire those adjunct teachers and staff who were laid off. The school has remained open (a handful of students will graduate this spring) and is expecting to enroll approximately 50 students for fall 2021, 100 the following year, and 300 the year after that, numbers that should allow time to develop a sustainable operating structure.

There are plans for a 150th-anniversary exhibition and benefit sale at the school in November of 2021. Titled Looking Forward , it will include a large selection of works by artists, both local and national, donated by the artists themselves, as well as by alumni, friends, collectors, foundations, current and former trustees, and prominent galleries. The following is a partial list of the artists to be represented: Cunningham, Diebenkorn, Ireland, Kienholz, Opie, Diane Arbus, Michael Heizer, Hans Hofmann, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Hung Liu, Julie Mehretu, Gary Simmons, and William T. Wiley. In addition, major works by Hall, Rivers, and Thiebaud are being offered for sale before the exhibition.

The long-term solution would most likely be a partnership with a college or university, or perhaps an alliance of art schools with complementary strengths. No one believes that returning to the way the school has operated in the past could or should be the goal.

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SFAI alumnus Kehinde Wiley unveiling his portrait of former President Barack Obama, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, 2018. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It must be noted that one contributor to the school’s troubles has been a lack of consistent leadership: between 1987 and 2021 there were six presidents or interim presidents. Currently, SFAI has no president but rather a chief academic officer and an interim chief operational officer. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to have a single president; instead, several officers could share responsibility for the governance of the school according to their expertise. Meanwhile, the covid -19 pandemic has shown that there are educational models that do not require on-site presence. Some students might be on campus, others could learn from afar. The same goes for faculty, guest teachers, and speakers. San Francisco, after all, is situated in the center of the tech world and should be in an advantageous position to devise new models.

Where do things stand now? The school’s debt has been deferred and recruitment and marketing officers have been retained. While working to increase enrollment, the board is also seeking a guarantor for a $7 million bridge loan. Several new, promising trustees have joined the board and there has been some impressive success in fundraising. The Access 50 Scholarship Fund, established under Knox’s presidency and directed at people of color, has received donations from artist Sam Gilliam and from Julie Wainwright, founder and CEO of RealReal, an online consignment market for luxury goods, who transferred a substantial amount of stock. The fund is currently valued at $750,000, and the first scholarships will be awarded in the fall of 2021. Expected income from leasing the Fort Mason campus might well yield $1 million a year over the fifty-five-year duration of the lease, which the school can borrow against. Over time, the new leadership is committed to implementing many of the Reimagine Committee’s suggestions, not least of which is finding new, more equitable and sustainable models that will enable it to lower tuition.

It seems that the school has been able to retreat from the abyss.

Peppered throughout this text are quotations from former students about their love for the school. Why does it inspire such passion? According to what they have said over and over, it is because of SFAI’s unique commitment to a purely fine-arts education that teaches students not only to be artists but, just as important, to think and see, to innovate and experiment. The school isn’t for everyone. Some former students cite the prohibitive cost and the lack of sufficient facilities, but most have positive, even rapturous memories of their time there. Many appreciate that they were treated as artists from day one; others cite the cultural and artistic diversity of the student body, and still others the support of the faculty. 25 Dara Birnbaum wrote simply, “I was able to fall in love with art there.” 26

I wish to acknowledge the many people who helped me with this article. I couldn’t have written the history of the San Francisco Art Institute without the good-natured help of Jeff Gunderson, librarian and archivist at the school, and his assistant Rebecca Alexander, whose chronology I drew upon and who helped me identify sources and answered what must have seemed endless questions. Steve Anker guided me through the history of the school’s Film Department and Linda Conner did the same for the Photography Department. I couldn’t have navigated the twists and turns of recent events and future plans without the assistance of Deborah Obalil, Lonnie Graham, John Marx, Doug Hall, Jennifer Rissler, Gordon Knox, Jeremy Stone, Lindsey White, Leonie Guyer, and Joyce Burstein. Finally, I am grateful to Judy Bloch, who deftly edited the essay, as she has so many of those I have written in the past.

1 Deborah Obalil, telephone conversation with the author, March 9, 2021.

2 Bakewell & Brown designed many San Francisco landmarks, including City Hall, and Arthur Brown Jr. later designed Coit Tower. A 1969 addition to the campus was designed by Paffard Keatinge-Clay. The school changed its name from California School of Fine Arts to San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1961; for simplicity, the school is referred to by its current name throughout this article.

3 San Francisco Art Association Bulletin , April 1930, p. 4. SFAI Archives, Anne Bremer Memorial Library, SFAI.

4 Patti Smith, Instagram post, thisispattismith, January 19, 2019. Available online at https://www.instagram.com/p/Bs1Mcx_hpUx/ (accessed June 7, 2021).

5 Kehinde Wiley, quoted in SFAI, “Kehinde Wiley to deliver keynote address at San Francisco Art Institute Commencement and receive honorary degree,” March 21, 2018. Available online at https://sfai.edu/uploads/about-sfai/2018_SFAI_Commencement_Release_03212018.pdf  (accessed June 7, 2021).

6 Gunderson, illustrated chronology, 1954–69, unpublished.

7 “The Experience,” press release, SFAI, May 23, 1966. SFAI Archives.

8 Annie Leibovitz had been a student in Bruce Nauman’s sculpture class.

9 Paul Kos, “Studio 10,” in San Francisco Art Institute MFA Catalog, 2002 (San Francisco: SFAI, 2002).

10 Carol Szymanski, quoted in Taylor Dafoe, “‘I Fell in Love With Art There’: As the San Francisco Art Institute Closes, 5 Celebrated Artists Reflect on How the School Shaped Them,” Artnet News , April 1, 2020. Available online at https://news.artnet.com/art-world/san-francisco-art-institute-alumni-1820244 (accessed June 10, 2021).

11 Barry McGee, quoted in “10 Famous Artists You Didn’t Know Went to SFAI,” (im)material Blog , SFAI, n.d. Available online at https://sfai.edu/blog/ten-famous-artists-who-went-to-sfai (accessed June 10, 2021).

12 Leibovitz, quoted in Cynthia Robins, “Celebrities Wow Art Crowd,” San Francisco Examiner , March 18, 1996.

13 Jane Reed, email to the author, April 9, 2021.

14 Steve Anker, “Radicalizing Vision: Film and Video in the Schools,” in Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid, eds., Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010), p. 155. This account was drawn from Anker’s essay, pp. 152–58.

15 Kathryn Bigelow, quoted in “SFAI Alumna Spotlight: Kathryn Bigelow,” Art & Education , June 26, 2013. Available online at https://www.artandeducation.net/announcements/108449/sfai-alumna-spotlight-kathryn-bigelow (accessed June 10, 2021).

16 Stephanie Syjuco, quoted in Dafoe, “‘I Fell in Love With Art There.’”

17 Devendra Banhart, email to the author, April 20, 2021.

18 A transcript of the conference is available online at https://www.ubu.com/historical/wrtma/transcript.htm (accessed June 10, 2021).

19 The transcript is currently being digitized; see https://sfai.edu/press-releases/sfai-receives-prestigious-grant-to-digitize-recordings-featuring-some-of-the-most-prominent-names-in-20th-century-art-history (accessed June 24, 2021).

20 Directors of the exhibition program over the years have included James Monte, Phil Linhares, Helene Fried, David Rubin, Richard Pinnegar, Jeanie Weiffenbach, Karen Moss, Hou Hanru, Andrew McClintock, Hesse McGraw, Katie Morgan, and Kat Trataris.

21 Artists represented in American Primitive and Naïve Art were W. L. Caldwell, Carlos Carvajal Sr., Jim Colclough, Flipper, B. J. Newton, Harold Pedersen, Jane Porter, Martín Ramírez, Pauline Simon, P. M. Wentworth, and Joseph Yoakum.

22 Obalil, telephone conversation with the author.

23 A group of alumni, noting that fundraising outreach to alumni had virtually and inexplicably fallen off, have formed their own committee, SF Artists Alumni, to promote a collaborative way forward. They maintain and expand outreach to alumni all over the world and publish a newsletter covering alumni activities.

24 See Zachary Small, “San Francisco’s Top Art School Says Future Hinges on a Diego Rivera Mural,” New York Times , January 5, 2021.

25 See “San Francisco Art Institute Reviews,” Niche. Available online at https://www.niche.com/colleges/san-francisco-art-institute/reviews/ (accessed June 10, 2021).

26 Dara Birnbaum, quoted in Dafoe, “‘I Fell in Love With Art There.’”

SFAI’s benefit auction and sale, Looking Forward, featuring works by  Edward and Nancy Kienholz, Diane Arbus, Hans Hofmann, Hung Liu, Wayne Thiebaud, and William T. Wiley, among others, will take place at SFAI  on November 4, 2021; to attend the event, purchase tickets at  sfai.edu

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The Importance of Arts Education Essay

Introduction, the importance of teaching arts education.

Art has been in existence for since the beginning of human civilisation. The field, in most cases, is viewed as a way of action and knowing. Art has played a key role in the development of human identities. It has also been significant to the evolution of cultural practices in all human societies. Consequently, art is regarded as one of the defining elements of humanity. To some advocates of this field, art is believed to be the window to the soul of humanity. According to Nathan (2008), art is used to communicate and provide a framework for the understanding of passions, emotions, and the enduring conflicts that humans have always indulged in. The scholars who advocate for the centrality of arts in the development of humanity observe that even the cavemen recorded their history, experiences, and events through drawings of pageants that marked the passing of time and seasons (Anderson, 2014).

In this paper, the author explores the importance of art its contribution in the development of cognitive and cultural attributes among children. To this end, the author will demonstrate that art provides human societies with lens through which they can view both historical and contemporary issues. Finally, the paper will be used to support the argument that teaching art processes can improve the ability of students to shape the learning process and the way it is conceived in schools.

Arts in Traditional and Contemporary Societies

Arts are a common feature in both traditional and modern societies. In most traditional communities, trumpets and drums were used to herald the commencement of battle. In addition, birth and death in these societies were received with songs and dance. Consequently, theatre was viewed as an avenue through which solutions to dilemmas faced by mankind were provided. It can also be observed that in most communities, the portraits of heroes, kings, villains, and other important figures in the society were painted to record these particular moments in time ( Learning area, n.d).

To recognise the centrality of arts to experiences among humans, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted several decades ago ( The future of the Australian curriculum, 2014). The declaration observed that everybody has a right to participate in the cultural life of their community. In addition, each person should be able to enjoy and share arts in the scientific advancement of its benefits. In the western world, arts subjects have been neglected and pushed to the periphery of the academic field in favour of the sciences. The curriculums used in most schools focus on literacy, sciences, and numeracy. However, in the last few decades, the intrinsic values of arts have been recognised (Ross, 2014).

According to some advocates of this field, arts have the ability to release people’s imaginations to new perspectives. In addition, they can help people identify new solutions and alternative views to life. As a result, the vistas that could be opened, as well as the connections that could be made, are phenomenal. It is also noted that the encounter between the individual and the world around them would be newly informed with the help of arts. In addition, immersion in arts has been found to improve individuals’ sense of enjoyment and identity. The immersion can also offer positive changes in the direction taken by the life of the individual (Anderson, 2014). In most cases, it is argued that arts can transform learning in education contexts. They can also ensure improve the link between the learners and the curriculum.

A Working Definition of Arts

There are many ways through which arts can be defined. According to Bamford (2006), arts can be used to reflect the uniqueness of the cultural circumstances of a particular nation. Bamford (2006) further observes that art is characterised by fluidity and dynamism. In their attempts to arrive at a working definition of arts, Bamford (2006) recognises the impossibility of giving static definitions to this field. The reason is that the definitions become obsolete as soon as they are provided. As such, scholars should be conscious of the dynamism of contemporary art practices. In addition, the art terminology can be used to represent the important creative disciplines. The disciplines include dance, literature, drama, music, visual arts, film, as well as other forms of media arts. All these disciplines have a significant role in formal education contexts. They also play a significant role in the cohesion of the community.

The forms of art described above can be viewed as a representation of different languages. Their varying modes are used to communicate a wide range of skills, knowledge, and symbols. In light of this, it is imperative to study each form of art (Burton, 2010). Each form of art should be explored for its intrinsic values. The reason is that each of them has different ways of creating knowledge and improving communication (Sinclair & O’Toole, 2008). The various forms of art should be viewed and understood as different types of literary elements. However, it is important to note that all of them involve some kind of design, experimentation, play, provocation, and exploration. In addition, they entail expression, communication, representation, and visualisation. All these elements are used to shape other forms of media (Ross, 2014).

Developmental Benefits of Arts

Arts play a significant role in the development of a child’s motor skills. For instance, most of the motions involved in the creation of art, such as scribbling with a pencil or a crayon, are important in the development of fine motor skills ( The future of the Australian curriculum, 2014). Participation helps learners to improve their skills in mathematics and reading. It also improves one’s cognitive and verbal competencies. According to Burton (2010), engaging in arts has a positive correlation with verbal capabilities. Learning these subjects is also associated with an increase in levels of motivation and enhanced confidence. It also improves concentration and teamwork among the learners ( Why art matters, 2011).

Many scholars observe that the intrinsic pleasures derived from arts entail more than just the ‘sweetening’ of a person’s life (Burton, 2010). Such experiences help to deepen the connection between the individual and the world around them. They also provide them with new ways to view the world. The development lays the foundation for strong social bonds and improved cohesion in the community. A strong programming of arts within the curriculum also helps to close the intellectual gap that has made many children lag behind in intellectual achievement. It is noted that the children from affluent backgrounds are exposed to arts through visits to museums and attending Mozart concerts and other platforms. As a result, their interaction with the arts is assured regardless of whether or not the subjects are provided in their schools. However, teaching arts in schools provides children from poor economic backgrounds a level playing field (Nathan, 2008).

Arts Education and Academic Achievement

A new picture is emerging in the new educational era. School districts have started to focus on the field of arts. The emerging models are anchored on new brain research findings and cognitive development. The new models have embraced a variety of approaches that regard arts as a significant learning tool. For instance, musical notes are increasingly being used to teach fractions (Nathan, 2008). The models have also incorporated arts into the teaching of the core classes. For example, the teaching of slavery and other historical themes can be delivered by having the students act a play that dramatises those events.

In the US, Australia, and Europe, it is widely acknowledged that the students exposed to a learning process embedded in arts achieve improved grades and better test scores compared to those who are not exposed to this field. The students are less likely to play truants. In addition, they are rarely bored and have a healthy and positive self concept (Marshall, 2010). They are also most likely to participate in community service. Nascent studies have demonstrated that learning through arts can improve educational outcomes for other academic disciplines (Burton, 2010). For instance, the studies have observed that the students who partake in drama and music attain higher levels of success in reading and mathematics than those who do not take part in such ventures. Consequently, arts are seen as strategies to engage difficult students. The subjects connect learners to self, others, and the world. Engaging in arts also helps the teacher to transform the classroom environment. Most importantly, it challenges the students who may already be successful to work harder (Burton, 2010).

Specific Connections

Experimental evidence demonstrates a strong link between non-arts and arts skills. For example, I carried out an experiment on 10 children who were involved in a family theatre program. The program demonstrated that an exposure in theatrical activities for a year improves the empathy and emotional regulation among the children. For the adolescents involved in a similar program, it was shown that arts helped them improve their empathy. It also improved their understanding and appreciation of the mental status of other participants. The linkage makes sense to the advocates of arts education (Marshall, 2010). Training in arts, acting, and theatre puts the participants in other people’s shoes. The experience helps them to imagine how other people feel. In addition, it enables them to understand their emotions and view the world differently. After undertaking the program, I concluded that students should be given the opportunity to study arts in school irrespective of whether or not the subjects have discernible positive effects.

Cognitive Benefits of Arts

The cognitive benefits that are derived from arts include the development of skills needed in learning, improvement of academic performance, as well as enhancement of reading and mathematical capabilities. In addition, arts improve creative thinking among the learners (Marshall, 2010). The experiment mentioned above also showed that participation in theatre helped students from low socioeconomic backgrounds improve their academic performance. Consequently, I can conclude that the effects of arts education are transformative. The effects hold true across the socioeconomic divide. The impacts are cumulative and increase as the students from poor background get more exposure to the study of arts. It can also be emphasised that the students who are exposed to arts had better scores, which are higher than those of learners who are less engaged. The scores are especially better in such educational areas as creative thinking and originality (Burton, 2010).

The Benefits of Arts with Regards to Behaviour and Attitude

The study of arts has a positive impact on the attitudes and behaviour of the students. The benefits of behavioural and attitude change include improved self-efficacy and self-discipline. The advantages are easily associated and directly linked to improved school attendance, as well as reduced rates of drop-outs (Burton, 2010). In addition, the benefits are associated with the development of social skills. Such social and life skills include better understanding and appreciation of the consequences of an individual behaviour. The students also portray an increased ability to participate in teamwork, acceptance of constructive critiquing from fellow students, and the willingness to adopt pro-social behaviours.

Health Benefits of Arts Education

I must recognise that art has many health benefits. The therapeutic effects include improved physical and mental health. In Australia, the benefits are beginning to be recognised with several ongoing projects in schools reporting positive outcomes. It is argued that people who engage in relaxing activities, such as reading a novel, playing a musical instrument, painting, or singing, develop a healthy mind ( Why art matters , 2011). It is also observed that people who enjoy attending a good concert, a dance, a movie, or an art exhibition exercise their body and mind through the enjoyment, social inclusion, and relaxation. The individuals also improve their confidence, resilience, and self-esteem (Marshall, 2010). An art-mental paradigm can deliver significant health benefits to the students at school and in their adult life.

Arts Education in Australian Curricula

There are three different approaches to the learning of arts in Australia. The first can be described as the appreciation of Australian arts heritage. In this approach, the field is conceptualised as a domain for the talented. The approach points to the belief that the talented artist will provide the Australian society with its cultural artefacts ( Learning area , n.d). The second approach is the identification of the students who demonstrate artistic potential. The teachers focus on these learners and prepare them for future careers. The third approach is the desire to avail every student with an opportunity to engage with art and to appreciate it (Marshall, 2010). As such, the Australian curriculum anticipates that the students will actively learn, engage in artistic activities and processes, as well as appreciate the works of art done by others.

It must be remembered that the role of arts is to enhance learning by increasing enjoyment, fostering creativity, and enhancing imaginative activities. The objectives can only be achieved through participation in arts programs. It is also observed that students become more cognisant of the larger spectrum of world experiences by engaging in this field. The role of arts is to transform the students’ learning experiences by celebrating creativity. As such, teaching of arts should be encouraged and promoted at all levels of learning. Every student should be provided with the opportunity to participate in arts so as to improve their academic performance and develop into healthy adults with enhanced social skills.

Anderson, M. (2014). Why this elitist attack on arts education is wrong . Web.

Bamford, A. (2006). The wow factor: Global research compendium on the impact of the arts in education . Berlin, Germany: Waxmann Verlag.

Burton, B. (2010). Dramatising the hidden hurt: Acting against covert bullying by adolescent girls: Research in drama education. The Journal of Applied Theatre & Performance, 15 (2), 255-278.

Learning area. (n.d). Web.

Marshall, J. (2010). Five ways to integrate: Using strategies from contemporary art. Art Education, 63 (3), 13-19.

Nathan, L. (2008). Why the arts make sense in education. Phi Delta Kappan, 90 (3), 177-181.

Ross, M. (2014). The aesthetic imperative: Relevance and responsibility in arts education. New York: Pergamon.

Sinclair, C., & O’Toole, J. (2008). Education in the arts: Teaching and learning in the contemporary curriculum: Principles and practices for teaching. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

The future of the Australian curriculum: The arts: A response to the review of the Australian curriculum . (2014). Web.

Why art matters . (2011). Web.

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Art Admission Essays Samples For Students

16 samples of this type

Over the course of studying in college, you will definitely have to craft a bunch of Admission Essays on Art. Lucky you if linking words together and turning them into relevant content comes easy to you; if it's not the case, you can save the day by finding an already written Art Admission Essay example and using it as a model to follow.

This is when you will definitely find WowEssays' free samples directory extremely useful as it embodies numerous expertly written works on most various Art Admission Essays topics. Ideally, you should be able to find a piece that meets your requirements and use it as a template to compose your own Admission Essay. Alternatively, our competent essay writers can deliver you an original Art Admission Essay model written from scratch according to your custom instructions.

History of Art Admission Essay Samples

“Art is a proof of the existence of humankind” were the words that became my inspiration to understand and acquire arts with a whole new perspective. I was attending an Art Festival several years back where a renowned lecturer’s mentioned words paved a new path for me to follow. Although I already had an interest in the subject, his insightful lecture triggered my curiosity to gain more knowledge of art’s history and to dig into the subject for understanding it better.

Free Common Application Personal Essay Admission Essay Example

Statement of purpose: art and architecture admission essay.

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MFA Filmmaking Admission Essay

Admission essay.

In this essay I would like to describe why I consider that I deserve studying in the New York Film Academy to pursue the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Filmmaking. First, I want to describe my personal history and experience that resulted in my interest to the art of filmmaking. Then I will show my aspirations and goals, how I can realize them with the help of the NYFA and how I can help the academic community.

Example Of Admission Essay On A Year 2010

1. Title: The Sunny Day

B. Dimensions: Painting

C. Medium: Acrylic on canvas D. Description: When I was a child, I would visit my grandmother's house often, as she would take care of me while my parents were working. Every time I visited, I saw this sunflower; its size and bright, vibrant colors would always catch my eye, and that is what I wanted to convey in this painting. I used acrylic to accent the sunflower's natural color and brightness, contrasting it against my grandmother's house in the back.

2. Title: Prepare for Docking

A. Year: 2010

Admission essay on why do i want to become an architecture.

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Art & Essay Contest | Peace Islands Institute

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Art Institute

William Louis Sonntag, Sr did the “Dream of Italy” painting in 1859. Mr. Sonntag was born in 1822 and he became a great American landscape painter until his demise in 1900. He was born in East Liberty, Pennsylvania to a family of German background ( A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born between 1816 and 1845 27 ). However, his family relocated to Cincinnati just one year after his birth. He grew with a desire of becoming an artist although his father could not allow him. After he clocked twenty years in 1842, he started practicing his art and commercializing it. He became popularized for his artistic works that had gained a lot of fame in America. According to the Birmingham Museum of Art, little is known about Sonntag art education; hence, they believe it was self-taught (127).

In 1851, Sonntag was requested to draw a landscape painting of the rail network in Ohio where he discovered his full potential in landscape painting. As a result, he made his first Europe trip in 1853 in company of fellow artist John. R. Tait and Robert S. Duncanson. He resided at Florence in Italy where he made subsequent trips aimed at developing his career. He was fascinated by the nature of Florence; hence, he started his work on the “Dream of Italy” on 1856. He finished it on 1859 and returned to New York where he based his artistry work. The painting debuted the same year amidst heated debate concerning topography and realistic styles ( A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born between 1816 and 1845 47 ). The dream of Italy was the most celebrated work and it was sold to Dusseldolf Gallery. Sonntag was a member of the Hudson River School.

Works Cited

A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born between 1816 and 1845 . New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985. Print.

Birmingham Museum of Art (2010).  Birmingham Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection . London: Giles. p. 127

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art institute essay

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More than $80 million in federal student loans forgiven for Mass. borrowers who attended The Art Institutes

People walked past the Art Institute of Philadelphia operated by the Education Management Corporation in 2015. The Biden administration on Wednesday said it will cancel $6 billion in student loans for people who attended The Art Institutes, including the New England Institute of Art.

More than $80 million in federal student loan debt will be forgiven for more than 3,500 Massachusetts borrowers who attended The Art Institutes, a chain of for-profit art schools that included the now-shuttered New England Institute of Art, officials said Wednesday.

The cancellation of those loans was part of $6.1 billion in student loan relief approved for nearly 317,000 borrowers who enrolled at The Art Institutes, which at one time had more than 45 campuses across the country.

Loans will be forgiven for students who were enrolled between Jan. 1, 2004, and Oct. 16, 2017, officials said.

In an announcement Wednesday, the US Department of Education said The Art Institutes and its parent company “made pervasive and substantial misrepresentations to prospective students” about postgraduation employment and career expectations.

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“For more than a decade, hundreds of thousands of hopeful students borrowed billions to attend The Art Institutes and got little but lies in return,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said. “That ends today—thanks to the Biden-Harris Administration’s work with the attorneys general offices of Iowa, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.”

Before it closed, the New England Institute of Art had a campus in Brookline and offered associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in media arts, design, and fashion.

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell said she was “tremendously proud” to announce the debt relief.

“These predatory for-profit schools harmed vulnerable students for their own financial gain, leaving student borrowers burdened with debt and without viable job or financial prospects,” Campbell said in a statement .

In 2018, then-Attorney General Maura Healey sued The Art Institutes and its parent company, Education Management Corp., alleging they misrepresented the likelihood of job placement to prospective students to induce enrollment.

“Millions of students, including thousands of Massachusetts students, were taken advantage of by The Art Institutes and had their financial futures threatened,” Healey said in a statement . “This will be transformative for these students’ lives and benefit our economy as a whole.”

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren also welcomed the news, calling the debt cancellation “life-changing relief.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at [email protected] . Follow her @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22 .

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    Sample Essay Paper on Art Institute. Art Institute. William Louis Sonntag, Sr did the "Dream of Italy" painting in 1859. Mr. Sonntag was born in 1822 and he became a great American landscape painter until his demise in 1900. He was born in East Liberty, Pennsylvania to a family of German background ( A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born ...

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  25. Debts canceled for 317,000 former Art Institutes students

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