Leaving Your Heart In San Francisco

SFAI rooftop gathering

SFAI rooftop gathering

Around the corner from the compact hairpin turns of Lombard Street sits the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), one of the countries renowned art colleges. Tucked into the neighborhood known as Russian Hill, this compact campus has been a beacon of “creativity and critical thinking” since its formation in 1871. The college’s four artistic founders wanted an environment in which they could motivate and stimulate each other’s artistic development. That interactive and open philosophy drives the studies and feel of the college to this day.

 Focused on contemporary fine arts and cross-disciplinary study, you’ll find no commercial design courses here. The idea is to create working artists, engaged with and influenced by the world around them.

Freshmen dive into studio work from day one, taking two studio courses their first semester, and three their second. The Contemporary Practice Class fulfills the typical “foundations” role by exploring multiple mediums and genres, and introducing students to the urban environment around them – the city of San Francisco. Here, they tap into the city’s culture, its organizations and non-profits, and begin engaging with the world.

The college is divided into two schools, but students engage with and take courses in each. The School of Interdisciplinary Studies offers BA’s in Contemporary Art History and Urban Studies. The School of Studio

Photography lab

Photography lab

Practice offers BFA’s in Design and Technology, Film, New Genres, Painting, Photography, Printmaking, and Sculpture. As at other art colleges, liberal arts courses are structured to enhance artistic understanding and exploration. Studio Practice majors can take 11 electives during their four years on campus. They spend 70% of their time engaged in studio coursework, 30% in academic coursework.

With many open-ended assignments, self-motivation is a necessity. Each department has technical staff available for those needing a better understanding – or wanting to push themselves further. Additional campus resources include: free, nightly public lectures given by practicing artists, artistic thinkers, and curators; health insurance; and an almost endless amount of space for displaying your artwork.

Since the curriculum here is explorative in structure and study, it’s not surprising that graduates of the program are entrepreneurial. Many go on to start their own art galleries, or continue their artistic exploration in a residency program. SFAI statistics claim that 95% of alumni maintain a creative practice five years after graduation. That’s a strong number.

Hallway gallery space

Hallway gallery space

Colleen Mulvey, Associate Director of Admissions, was my campus tour guide. As with all SFAI admissions counselors, she holds an MFA from the college. Putting someone who’s walked-the-walk in the position of explaining the school is not always done, and quite frankly is frustratingly missing in some institutions. Not here; throughout the tour she continually brought our conversations back to SFAI’s core: the study and exploration of contemporary art in a truly open and engaging environment. If this philosophy sounds intriguing to you, I hope you’ll check the school out. Admission is based primarily on your GPA and portfolio. Contact the college with any questions. They offer free portfolio reviews as well.

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