Art World

SFAI 150 | ‘A Spirit of Disruption’

Finally Know How to Speak by Kezia Harrell. Photo: Courtesy of artist

In celebration of its 150th anniversary, the San Francisco Art Institute presents “A Spirit of Disruption.” This exhibition, on view through July 3, reflects on the schools’ history and the influence of its students on the world of contemporary art.


Founded in 1871, SFAI has operated as a microcosm of the Bay Area art world and the interdisciplinary, boundary-redefining radical creativity associated with San Francisco’s cultural identity. SFAI played a role in many contemporary art movements, including Abstract Expressionism, Bay Area Figuration, Color Field, California Funk, and the Mission School, affirming the school’s influence on the international art world

Including more than 30 alumni and faculty from the 1960s to the present, “A Spirit of Disruption” is dedicated to diverse artists and individuals often overlooked in the historical narrative of SFAI.

“The underpinning of the exhibition is to spotlight artists who have not been included in the larger historical narrative of SFAI, which has primarily been cisgender, white men,” says co-curator Leila Weefur. “We took special care to make sure the majority of the works included in the exhibition are by BIPOC/LGBTQ+ artists and vary in career length and exposure, pairing young and emerging artists with mid-career and established artists. ‘The Spirit of Disruption’ is the conceptual force behind this curatorial method, which is to disrupt the history and bring forth the diverse approach that best represents SFAI’s legacy.”

Among the featured artists is Filipino-American painter Leo Valledor (1936-89) and his shaped canvas Ghost Ring (1968). Valledor, a scholarship recipient at just 17 years old, went on to co-found the historic Park Place Gallery in New York. Also included is Mexican artist Miguel Calderon’s installation Pantalla Hypnotica (2018). Calderon became a key figure in the young alternative art scene in Mexico, and after graduation co-founded an art space called La Panderia. Recent graduate Cathy Lu will display her ceramic-based work involving the manipulation of traditional Chinese art objects and symbols. Her contribution is a large-scale hanging installation entitled Customs Declaration (2019). Figurative art, abstraction, conceptual art, sculpture, and installations become the life, color, texture, and sound of this time.


The evolution of the art world can be seen through the trajectory of SFAI’s changing roster of artists, and these stories are included in the exhibition. Florence “Flo” Wysinger Allen was a beloved artist and model who became the subject of countless paintings, sculptures, and drawings from 1933-97. As the founder of the Bay Area Models’ Guild in 1945 and a civil rights activist, she became an SFAI legend, and her memory is cemented, literally, in the form of her signature written in concrete in front of Studio 8 at the historic Chestnut Street campus. Ten sketches and paintings of Allen will be shown in the Diego Rivera Gallery. Objects and ephemera also include a coffee cup in homage to Father Guido Sarducci (comedian Don Novello). In a 1982 promotion for SFAI, he explained the advantages of being an artist, which included “sitting around all day long drinking espresso coffee with your friends.”

“A Spirit of Disruption” expands SFAI’s story via a dynamic media installation featuring artists Rigo 89, Karen Finley, Cliff Hengst, and many others. Also, in conjunction with the exhibition, co-curator Margaret Tedesco along with Weefur produced an interactive multimedia web program titled Are you listening?, a 10-episode podcast series including digital images, videos, and information from the SFAI archive. Each episode considers the histories of the art school and its various departments accompanied by original alumni music. 

“This exhibition at 150 years is a reexamination of the constantly changing complexion of art history — an invitation to no longer read between the lines,” adds Tedesco.

San Francisco Art Institute | “A Spirit of Disruption”: Tuesday 11 a.m.–7 p.m. and Wednesday–Saturday 11 a.m.–6 p.m. through July 31, free. 800 Chestnut Street, 415-771-7020, A virtual version of the exhibition will be available beginning March 19. 

Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at

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