The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) has announced that Pam Rorke Levy will be replaced by Lonnie Graham as Chair of the Board of Trustees. The SFAI has been fighting to stay afloat, financially, as attendance had declined, but the exit of Levy comes soon after the Board faced criticism over discussing the potential sale of a Diego Rivera mural.
In 2018, Levy became Chair of the Board after serving on the committee since 2013. Last summer, Levy’s term expired but she remained on the Board to support the school as it navigated the pandemic. “I feel I can step back,” Levy told The New York Times in light of the announcement, “SFAI has the runway to rebuild itself.” Levy will work alongside Graham until the end of January to assist in the transition.
The SFAI has been in an ongoing battle to save the school from foreclosure, which was imminent in the spring of last year. A deal was negotiated with the University of California which allowed the 150-year old art school to skirt closing for good. Ultimately, the University of California purchased more than $19 million of the SFAI’s debt from private banks while the board focused on restructuring to safeguard the school’s future.
To help alleviate financial pressures, board discussions included airing the idea to sell a mural by Rivera, a renowned Mexican artist who heavily influenced the San Francisco area. The mural was created in 1931 and holds and estimated value of $50 million. When it broke that the artwork’s future was uncertain, alumni and faculty were outraged by the motion. Soon after, though, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to give the artwork landmark status, which would make any future sale or relocation of the artwork far more difficult.
The SFAI Board also considered the use of endowment funds to help cover school spending. However, according to Graham, last week the Board revisited this and decided to procure a $7 million loan so that the endowment would remain in tact.
Graham, who graduated from the SFAI in 1984, is an artist, photographer, and cultural activist. In 2002 and 2016, he was an adjunct professor at the art institute and became a part of the Board of Trustees in July of last year. He previously worked as the Acting Associate Director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia and the Director of Photography at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburg. A Pew Fellow, Graham is currently the Executive Director of The PhotoAlliance in San Francisco and a professor of art in photography at Pennsylvania State University.
Alongside the election of Graham, John Marx has been elected as Vice Chair of the Board and will replace Bonnie Levinson and Jeremy Stone, who have been co-Vice Chairs since 2020 and 2019, respectively.
“As we move forward,” Graham said in a statement released by the SFAI, “I would like to see the San Francisco Art Institute continue to cultivate and sustain experimentation and innovation in the fine arts as we imagine an inclusive and collaborative educational environment.”
Edited 28 January, 2021: This article has been revised for clarity. An earlier edition of this article incorrectly reported information regarding the use of restricted endowment funds. The SFAI Board considered the use of endowment funds only. Additionally, there was only one former trustee who pushed back against this consideration.