Saving the San Francisco Past

In a city that honors the new and newness, islands of the past disappear almost every day. In spanking new neighborhoods like Dogpatch, where glass and steel buildings tower over the streets, the past hardly exists. Elsewhere, too, history has been effaced. Alas, the San Francisco Art Institute is no more. The famed school, known locally and globally as SFAI, shuttered last year. No classes are held on the campus. But the elastic, indomitable spirit of the place at 800 Chestnut Street lives all across The City, and wherever graduates have set down roots and are making art, which is all over the world.

On the afternoon of Sunday, March 26, 2023, at the Minnesota Street Project on Minnesota, of course, lovers and friends of SFAI will gather to celebrate the institution and its colorful history as one of the oldest art schools in the US. Founded in 1871, and formerly known as the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA), it has been a birthplace and a home over the past 150 years to nearly every cultural movement and artistic expression, whether in film, sculpture and painting. What’s more, the roof terrace offers a singularly spectacular view of the whole city that’s not to be missed if it’s urban beauty you want.

The March 26 event, which is titled “The Spirit is Alive,” is also a fund-raiser of sorts, though raising money is not the primary objective. So says Jeff Gunderson, a longtime librarian and archivist at SFAI where he has an office, and where these days he touts a new non-profit, the SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive formed for the purpose of saving the archives and the history of the Institute.

In the summer of 2022, the Foundation and Archive received a two-year grant totaling $250,000 from the National Endowment of the Humanities to do the extensive work of cataloguing, which means sifting and sorting through thousands of documents. Gunderson is the director of the project. Becky Alexander, also an archivist and a librarian, shares the work with him and deserves equal billing. “In some ways it’s a hunt for buried treasure,” Gunderson says.

Still, there are definitely decades of history worth saving, as well as Diego Rivera’s stunning mural, and the building in which it’s housed, designed in 1926 by architect Arthur Brown who also designed San Francisco’s City Hall and Temple Emanu-El on Lake Street. The Rivera mural, titled the “Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” was created in 1931. Ever since SFAI shuttered, the mural has been closed to the public.

At his office on Chestnut Street, Gunderson leans back in his chair and recounts the career of Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who won an academy award in 2015 for Citizenfour, which explores the life and times of Edward Snowden. Poitras studied film and photography when she was a student at SFAI. Her 2022 doc, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which traces the art of Nan Goldin, and also follows the rise and fall of the infamous Sackler family, won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival.

Poitras is in the running for an Oscar this year. Eadweard Muybridge, one of the pioneers of the art of filmmaking, jump started his career at SFAI, as archival documents show. His images of horses, captured in flight, as it were, changed the very nature of the way reality is perceived.

“The archives offer evidence of every artistic and cultural movement that animated San Francisco,” Gunderson says. “Not only the original bohemians, but also the Beats, Beatniks, hippies, punks, feminists and liberationists of all kinds. They all passed through the Institute, left a record of their contributions, and took away with them on their journeys what they learned.” Other illustrious grads of the school include Kehinde Wiley, Susan Cervantes, Juana Alicia and the artist known as “Rigo.”

The March 26th celebration will include live music, films, performances and paintings, sculpture, dance, and a silent auction of 30 works donated by the artists themselves. Proceeds from the auction will benefit the new SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive. In an email announcing the event, Diana Fuller— a force in the arts in The City—wrote, “The program will be geared to a multi-generational audience. It will feature the work of artists both living and dead, of all disciplines who share a relationship to the school, as former students, teachers and friends.” She added, “Recently there has been too much negativity in the media about San Francisco. In fact, the art scene here is still alive.” The March 26th event will be joyful.” Saving the archives and saving SFAI means saving an outpost of non-conformity and a home of countercultural experimentation in a sea of corporate uniformity.

The Spirit is Alive
Sunday, March 26, 2023, 2-6 pm
Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St., San Francisco, CA 94107
Tickets: $5 – $150 (sliding scale)

For more information and to purchase tickets.

For more information on the event, contact:

For information on the SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive, visit

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.