Laurene Powell Jobs’ Nonprofit Acquires San Francisco Art Institute

Large gallery room with colorful mural depicted on back wall
Diego Rivera’s 1931 The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City in the San Francisco Art Institute. © Robert Holmes/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

After a year filled with debt, bankruptcy and an uncertain future, the San Francisco Art Institute will be given a new life. The struggling institution has been acquired for some $30 million by a nonprofit led by billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Founded in 1871, the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) saw students and faculty like Kehinde Wiley, Mark Rothko, Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz pass through its halls over the decades. Closing its doors in 2022 after financial struggles and a slew of failed mergers, it could now reclaim its storied legacy of education by once again operating as an arts institution.

“The Art Institute played a huge part in our cultural life for 150 years,” tweeted London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco. “Now it will be at the center of a new era of creative brilliance.”

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The acquisition of the institution doesn’t just include its now-empty 93,000-square-foot campus on San Francisco’s Russian Hill, but a famed Diego Rivera mural that has long adorned its student gallery and has been valued at some $50 million. The fresco, created in 1931 as an ode to industrial workers, became the subject of protests across San Francisco’s art world in 2021 when SFAI administrators considered selling the work to pay off rising debts exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Rivera’s work was subsequently designated a landmark by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, an initiative spearheaded by the board’s president Aaron Peskin that thwarted the possibility of its removal.

“I am delighted beyond words,” Peskin, who also introduced legislation to allow an uncredited institution to operate on the SFAI campus, told Observer of the building’s acquisition. “It literally brought tears to my eyes to know that this century-and-a-half-year-old arts edifice will be repurposed and will continue to produce world-class artists.”

Enter Powell Jobs and a group of local arts leaders

Backed by Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs who has an estimated net worth of $13 million, a nonprofit formed in September of 2023 with the goal of buying and restoring the property. This isn’t the first foray into arts philanthropy for Powell Jobs, who has previously supported various cultural institutions through her philanthropic company Emerson Collective.

Local arts leaders make up the nascent nonprofit’s board. Advisory committee members include Brenda Way, the founder of dance organization ODC; Lynn Feintech, a longtime ODC board member; David Stull, CEO of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Stanlee Gatti, the former leader of the San Francisco Arts Commission; and Stephen Beal, a previous president of the California College of Arts.

“This was a critical first step, but it is only a first step. Now the real work begins,” said Way in a statement. With its new owner, SFAI is expected to undergo a series of capital improvements that could take two to four years, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which noted renovating a leaky roof and clearing the campus of left-behind property as priority areas before the institution is ready to operate as an educational facility.

In addition to reopening as a school, the building is planning on adding affordable on-site artist residencies. As for the Rivera mural, the monumental fresco will once again be open to the public after work is completed on the building. “San Francisco needed a shot in the arm,” said Peskin. “This is literally like a dream come true.”

Billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs’ Nonprofit Acquires the San Francisco Art Institute

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