Oh, No! San Francisco Art Institute Has Closed

Just as a major Diego Rivera exhibition has opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and I have been writing about Albert Bender’s friendship and support of Rivera and Frida Kahlo, I hear the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) has abruptly closed after an anticipated merger with the University of San Francisco fell through. This is sad news for many reasons, including that the Rivera mural at SFAI had just been restored with a $200,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation. Plans were underway to showcase the mural with a series of public events. But as of now the entire staff is laid off, although there is some sort of plan for SFAI to “remain a nonprofit organization to protect its name, archives, and legacy.” Both the building and the Rivera mural have been designated city landmarks, which will limit their future possibilities.

Diego Rivera, The Making of a City, 1931, fresco mural at San Francisco Art Institute

This closure is also a blow to me personally, because I had been planning to revisit the SFAI archives, where I did some research early in the process of working on Bender and Bremer. The SFAI library was named the Anne Bremer Memorial Library, and I wanted to get a little more background on when and how it got that name. The school moved into the building in 1925, after Anne Bremer had died. Below is an image of the library, apparently just known as the San Francisco Art Association Library, in 1930. (Note Henri Matisse’s words of praise for San Francisco’s art atmosphere and art school!)

In 1935 this “dedicatory relief” was installed above the library fireplace:

Jacques Schnier, The Soil, 1935, wood carving with gold leaf

I suppose the artist intended the subject matter to suggest that an art school was providing aesthetic nourishment to young people. I find it interesting that Schnier, himself a Jew as were Bender and Bremer, included Stars of David as Naziism was on the rise.

So it was probably in 1935 that the library got its name. The following year, Bender commissioned several artists to paint frescoes in the eleven semicircular lunettes above the wood paneling: Victor Arnautoff, Ray Boynton, William Hesthal, Gordon Langdon, Frederick Olmsted, and Ralph Stackpole. Most of these artists had worked on the Public Works of Art Project-funded fresco murals in Coit Tower in 1934. Besides wanting to beautify the room (recently called one of the most beautiful college libraries in America), Bender always wanted to help artists financially. In the midst of the Depression they could use all the help they could get.

Catching up on recent articles about the Art Institute, I also learned of a number of frescoes there that had been painted over in the early 1940s and were rediscovered and restored in the past few years. One of the student artists who created them was Suzanne Scheuer, whose name I recognized as the painter of the mural in the Berkeley Main Post Office. See her depiction of a Roman-themed artists’ costume ball here.

I hope there is some way that the building will once again be open to the art-loving public and its archives open to researchers like me.

Albert Bender and the PPIE

400px-Postcard_from_the_Panama-Pacific_ExpositionThere will be much talk in the coming year about the centennial of the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. This world’s fair was a spectacular and significant event for San Francisco, less than a decade after much of the city was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Albert Bender, an insurance broker, played a key role in arranging for fire insurance coverage for the exposition, although it seems he kept a pretty low profile (he often preferred anonymity). In October 1913, the San Francisco Insurance Brokers’ Exchange had established a committee, including Albert, to propose “a plan whereby the insurance of the Exposition Company would be handled in the simplest and most economical manner . . . and which at the same time would secure the hearty co-operation of the members of the Brokers’ Exchange.”1 A dispute arose, in which a “syndicate” of just a few of the hundreds of local brokers appealed to the Exposition Company to contract exclusively with them, but it seems the larger group prevailed, agreeing to arrange for the complexities of insuring the exposition with no profit to individual brokers. A few letters from Albert to officers of the exposition during 1914 and 1915 attest to his continued involvement. Two plaques in the Bender Papers at Mills College express gratitude to him in relation to the exposition. A letter written by George Sterling in February 1915 refers to Albert as having “overworked himself on the P.P.I.E.” But I have not found his name in any of the published records of the fair or in newspaper accounts of such events as “Insurance Day.”

In late 1914 and early 1915 Albert was in frequent contact with the poet George Sterling, who, separated from his wife Carrie, had moved to New York and was struggling financially as he tried to sell his poetry or find work at a magazine or newspaper. In October Sterling wrote, “Can you tell me if the Exposition is really to be opened in Feb.? I hear all sorts of rumors, pro and con. I intend to write (unofficially) an ode for the occasion, and know it’ll be the best thing I’ve ever done. But I don’t want to begin it if there’s to be no Exposition till God-knows-when!” Albert reassured him it was on schedule and did his best to influence the exposition board to commission the poet to write an official ode. Sterling said he wouldn’t expect much payment—“a hundred dollars is enough. Probably I could get that much from even a newspaper. So I’ll take as much more as the P.P.I.E. would give, provided they’ll give anything at all.” But when Sterling heard that Ina Coolbrith might be receiving this commission, he wrote to Albert, “I want to thank you most heartily for all the trouble you’ve gone to in my behalf, and assure you that I appreciate it immensely. But I can’t keep any laurels or emoluments from so unfortunate and gifted a singer as Miss Coolbrith.”2

Ina Coolbrith, who was now in her seventies, had been a highly regarded but impecunious Bay Area poet and an honorary member of the Bohemian Club since the 1870s. In 1892 she had been dismissed after nineteen years as librarian for the Oakland public library, where she had been paid meagerly but was fondly remembered for mentoring Jack London and Isadora Duncan, among others. In 1893 she had been commissioned to write a poem for a California event at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. But it seems the Panama Pacific Exposition Board did not come up with funds for a commissioned ode, so Sterling went ahead and wrote and submitted to the San Francisco Examinerover 250 lines. I hope to Gawd they accept it! It’s rather Socialistic: but Hearst shouldn’t be particular along lines!”3 The Examiner paid him $125 and published the poem on the exposition’s opening day, February 20, 1915. Before that, Sterling was surviving in New York largely through the charity of Albert and other friends.

Although New York hadn’t given Sterling much recognition, he was greatly revered at this time in San Francisco, and a quote from one of his poems was inscribed over a prominent gateway at the exposition. But it was Ina Coolbrith who was honored as California’s first Poet Laureate by the International Congress of Authors and Journalists at the Exposition.5 Sterling is referred to often as “San Francisco’s unofficial poet laureate.” His “Ode on the Opening of the Panama Pacific Exposition” appeared later in 1915 as a limited-edition book published by Alexander M. Robertson of San Francisco, who had produced a book of Sterling poems the previous year. The book is dedicated “To Albert M. Bender” and may have been underwritten by Albert and others Albert persuaded to pre-order it.6

1 George Newhall to Charles Moore, 11 October 1913, PPIE Archives, Bancroft library, UC Berkeley, box 66, folder 41.

2 George Sterling to Bender, 24 November 1914, BP. This letter was published in facsimile in 1935 (years after Sterling’s death) by the Book Club of California with an introduction by Robinson Jeffers about Sterling’s generosity: “The Letters of Western Authors–Number One,” 1935, sponsored by Albert.

3 Sterling to Bender, 1 February 1915.

4 Sterling to Bender, 17 December 1914.

5 San Francisco Chronicle, 1 July 1915, p. 7.

What’s the header image?

It’s from a postcard representing the Golden Gate and the Panama Pacific International Exposition that took place in the Marina District of San Francisco in 1915. Albert Bender helped make insurance arrangements for the fair. Anne Bremer exhibited five paintings and was awarded a Bronze Medal.

A portion of the dome and arcade of the Palace of Fine Arts (where Anne’s work was shown) is at the lower left of the image.  The Palace of Fine Arts was designed by Bernard Maybeck and still stands today, the only remnant of the exposition, after a series of restorations.


For several years I have been researching and writing about late-19th-century and early-20th-century California art, architecture, museums and patronage. My major long-term project is a dual biography tentatively titled Kissing Cousins, AMB and AMB: The Artistic Lives of San Francisco’s Albert M. Bender and Anne M. Bremer. Meanwhile, I would like to introduce you to these two remarkable people who had a major impact on the Bay Area cultural landscape.

Anne Bremer (1868-1923) was a highly regarded San Francisco-based artist, noteworthy for her interest in modernism and experimentation, especially after she studied in New York and Paris in 1910-1911. She held a number of leadership roles in the Bay Area art community. Her career was cut tragically short by leukemia. Albert Bender (1866-1941) was her cousin and beloved life partner. A successful insurance broker, he became a major patron of artists, museums, libraries, and performing arts organizations. Through Anne’s influence, he was particularly open to modernism, and he helped establish what are now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Mills College Art Museum.

To read more, click on “About Albert Bender” and “About Anne Bremer” at the top of this page.