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.