When the San Francisco Art Institute closed on July 15, the city lost one of its oldest and most important cultural institutions. The 148-year-old art school on the northeast slope of Russian Hill had been struggling for years, plagued by declining enrollment and struggling financially. Yet for decades, the school—known as the California School of Fine Arts until 1961—was a major force not just on the Bay Area art scene, but on the national scene. Artists and movements associated with the institution include Diego Rivera, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Manuel Neri, the Bay Area Figurative School, the funk movement and many more to list.
But the most crucial period in the school’s long history, when it transformed from a moribund graduating school for debutantes into a hotbed of artistic experimentation and a force to be reckoned with in modern art, took place in just five years, from 1946 to 1950. During this period, the school played an important role in the development of abstract expressionism, one of the most important artistic movements of the XXth century. And remarkably, it was a group of World War II veterans who made this development possible.