On the Re-Imagine Committee, the Attorney General, and new Board Leadership

We write with some important updates and thoughts regarding SFAI. 

In July 2020, in the wake of the school’s closure, the SFAI Board commissioned a Re-Imagine Committee, composed of roughly 70 alumni, students, adjuncts, full-time faculty and others within the SFAI Community, as a way to generate and consider possibilities for a future of SFAI. Working across 8 subcommittees — including equity/diversity/inclusion, pedagogy, governance, sustainability, and finance — the Re-Imagine Committee put in hundreds of hours of unpaid labor and rigorous work over a period of six months. Through a great deal of creative energy and collaborative effort, they prepared their findings for presentation. After the SFAI Board abruptly canceled a scheduled opportunity to hear the Committee’s findings (we believe it’s because the report included negative feedback about the Board’s workings), theSan Francisco Artists Alumni group (SFAA) stepped in and hosted the town hall on January 14 where the Re-Imagine Committee presented their work. We would like to thank SFAA for allowing this to happen.

The presentation was impressive, with a range of approaches to match the specific sets of problems. We saw critical, exhaustive thought around pivotal issues for any future of SFAI (or any other school) in areas of diversity, equity, inclusion and our relationship to the environment. We saw profound, big picture thought around new ways of considering organizational structures, with proposals to remove stale and inequitable hierarchies of governance and consider a bottom-up approach. We heard nuts-and-bolts, nitty-gritty information related to finances and fund-raising. These among other things, including a protocol for respectful practices around idea-generation and knowledge-sharing that guided the Committee’s activities, inspired us all with its caliber, circumspection, and honesty. In total, we saw an example of what you get when you put committed, creative minds together and let them go to work. The Re-Imagine Committee not only presented the findings for a possible model for a future of SFAI, but embodied the process of a collaborative, rigorous future as well.

[The full town hall is archived here]

It’s very difficult not to contrast the work done by the Re-Imagine Committee with the kind of defensive and secretive behavior SFAI’s Board of Trustees has displayed over the last 18 months (and longer). Our sincere hope is that the presentation by the Re-Imagine Committee can act as a turning point. The recent departure by Pam Rorke Levy and a few others from the Board of Trustees is one such result and it provides hope. It was clear that, with Pam as the leader, there could never be buy-in from the community, mainly because it wasn’t meaningfully sought.

From an adjunct point of view, at the beginning of the crisis at SFAI last Spring, we had three simple demands: full transparency from the Board, no layoffs, and no decisions about the future of the school without consultation with all stakeholders. Even after a January 8 meeting of adjuncts with the Board, at which we again requested a response, the Board has refused. Meanwhile, in addition to the Board opting not to hear the Reimagine Committee’s report that they themselves commissioned, they made attempts to sell the Diego Rivera mural. When their attempts became public, they worked to oppose landmark status for the mural so they could borrow against it. Finally, in a letter on January 17, they denied the Reimagine Committee’s assertions about the questionable legality of their use of endowment funds.

But a January 22 New York Times article (link here, pdf here) reveals that the Board leadership was in fact possibly spending endowment funds illegally, and that the California Attorney General’s office is now looking at SFAI financials over the last seven years. This validates one of our core demands: that we need transparency. While we could only speculate about why the Board has been so adamant about keeping things secret, we are hopeful the Attorney General’s office will discover what was concealed and why. What we do know is that for years the Board and the consultants they appoint (e.g., Mark Kushner) have resisted accountability and oversight. They’ve restrained people and limited information by insisting on NDAs, and used closed sessions to cut out all but a select few from the Board’s most consequential proceedings. It does not seem like a coincidence that these patterns of behavior run in parallel to SFAI experiencing its darkest days.

We know the students and the workers deserve better, and can do better. Now that we’ve seen, through the Re-Imagination Committee’s presentations, the results of community-driven efforts  — and now that the Board has been compelled by the state to open its books — we call on the new Board leadership to commit to a new path, and to abandon these past tendencies towards isolation and secrecy. If SFAI is to have a sustainable and equitable future, the Board must build trust. The time is now to commit to transparency. All Board proceedings, all supporting documents, and all minutes should be made public. We need a democratic institution, one where the power resides in the community, not in a select few. 

The Adjuncts have been and remain fully committed to fair and open partnerships with the community, and we extend that commitment to new Chair Lonnie Graham and the rest of the Board of Trustees, with whom we remain ready to work. A good starting point would be a real, reasoned response to our original petition (signed by nearly 1800 people) to open the board meetings to all and to make no decisions about the future of the school without consultation with all the stakeholders.

We are eager for the conditions under which we can all share authentic belief in SFAI and we can proudly enlist our friends, family, neighbors, and networks to support a future for the school. The wisdom, integrity, and spirit of SFAI stakeholders produces outsized results when given full voice and agency. But our resources cannot and should not be committed to SFAI until trust and confidence in leadership is rebuilt. We know that various other communities (including the donor community) are similarly wary of SFAI’s leadership. The Board must not assume they can rebuild trust on their own terms; it must instead come through substantive changes in governance structures and approach. Time is running down on the opportunity for our shared power and influence to be put to use. We are still hopeful.

SFAI Adjunct Union Leadership
Meredith Martinez
Ivan Iannoli
Art Hazelwood

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *