How veterans and avant-garde art saved the California School of Fine Arts


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.

In 1945, few expected the California School of Fine Arts to survive, let alone become a cutting-edge art center. Founded in 1874, CSFA was a typical fine arts college of its time, attracting large numbers of female students eager to acquire “achievements” to make themselves more marriageable. In the 1920s and 1930s, Richard Candida Smith wrote in “Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry and Politics in California,” he “had a reputation for having the most conservative curriculum in the state, with a faculty that clung firmly to the fine academic tradition of the arts.

The Great Depression and World War II hit the school hard, and by the 1940s she was on life support. Enrollment plummeted, and in 1942 the school principal resigned because there was no money to pay his salary. Most teachers quickly followed. In 1944, the board considered closing the dying school and selling the real estate.

At that moment, salvation came in the form of Douglas MacAgy, 32, curator at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Macagy offered to run the school, provided he was allowed to revise the curriculum and hire teachers as he saw fit. The board agreed, and MacAgy was appointed manager on July 1, 1945. It was a momentous hire.

MacAgy and his wife, Jermanyne, who was acting director of California’s Palace of the Legion of Honor, quickly became the Bay Area’s foremost champions of contemporary art. Jermanyne MacAgy curated Jackson Pollock’s first exhibition in San Francisco in 1942, followed by exhibitions of an artist by Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky and the painter who would become his school’s most dominant teacher. husband, Clyfford Still.

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For his part, Douglas MacAgy undertook to remake the stuffy CSFA into a center of artistic experimentation. To form the nucleus of the new painting faculty, he hired four painters he had met as a curator – Edward Corbett, David Park, Hassel Smith and Clay Spohn. The following year, he hired Elmer Bischoff and Clyfford Still. In 1948, he added Richard Diebenkorn. Ansel Adams was appointed head of the photography department, with Minor White as lead instructor. MacAgy hired Mark Rothko, Mark Tobey, Ad Reinhardt, Man Ray and Salvador Dali to teach individual sessions, and even spent three years trying to convince Marcel Duchamp to come out of retirement and join the faculty.

MacAgy has swept away the cobwebs of the venerable school. It is getting rid of its old pedagogy, which stipulated that students had to take classes in a prescribed order. He ordered studios to remain open 24 hours a day, so students could work whenever they wanted. He brought in jazz musicians and poetry readings. And symbolically, he hung a curtain over Rivera’s mural in the school’s exhibit hall.

MacAgy was not only a passionate proponent of artistic modernism, he was also convinced that his avant-garde vision would attract students. As Smith writes, MacAgy “was convinced that only by making the school the center of the most advanced thinking in the visual arts could it survive”.

This remarkably idealistic plan – Jackson Pollock as a business model? — would likely have crashed and burned, had it not been for perhaps the most unusual crop of new students in the history of liberal arts education in the United States: a flood of military veterans.

What led more than two million American veterans between 1945 and 1956 to drop off their M-1s and start studying Abstract Expressionism, or Samuel Beckett, or Karl Marx, was a law of the times: GI Bill of Rights. Passed by Congress in 1944, the GI Bill provided generous educational and other benefits to returning World War II veterans. Congress did not stipulate what type of education veterans would receive; in fact, he rejected a plan that would have limited benefits to programs of study focused on employable skills. Neither politicians nor educators expected veterans to prefer a liberal arts education to professional training—and certainly not that they would pour into art schools.

But in this era when the military was a true cross section of America, they did. As Smith notes, a 1946 UCLA survey found that veterans were more likely to take humanities courses than non-veterans. Veterans were much less motivated by practical concerns than non-veterans: 44% of veterans in a 1946 survey of 25 colleges said their main goal in returning to school was “to improve self”, compared to only 12% of non-veterans. Veterans. Veterans also scored higher than non-veterans.

Thanks to the GI Bill, veterans swelled the ranks of liberal arts colleges—and correspondingly more of them are enrolling in art schools. As Smith points out, between 1946 and 1952 the percentage of veterans who were full-time students at the five most important art schools in California – the CSFA, the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and three in Los Angeles – was never less than 70%. At CSFA, veterans in 1947 and 1948 comprised 74% of full-time students; in 1949, a staggering 87%.

The first veterans began enlisting in the fall of 1945; by the following spring, enrollment had risen to 1,017 full-time and part-time students, 350% more than in 1944 and far more than the school’s previous peak in 1929. School enrollment and revenue increased each year until 1949.

It was a unique cohort. Smith calls it “a special group of students, those veterans who, for no practical reason, turned to art when given the opportunity to fulfill their educational dreams.” By entering the CSFA, they embark on the world of art. They devoured the intense, demanding, sometimes quasi-religious courses offered by Still, Smith and others. And they saved the school.

In the years to come, the CSFA will evolve. Still and other faculty members left. MacAgy resigned in 1950. Abstract expressionism was followed by the Bay Area figurative movement, which was followed by funk, which was followed by pop, and so on, in a pattern of change as old as the art itself.

The long term of the San Francisco Art Institute, formerly the California School of Fine Arts, ended this year. But while mourning this loss, it is worth remembering the unique five years when the school’s modern era began – led by brilliant artists and administrators of vision, and by a group of veterans who wanted to expand their lives.

Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco.” His most recent book is “Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City”. All Portals of the Past material is original to The San Francisco Chronicle. To read previous Gates of the Past, go to



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