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The San Francisco Art Institute

Great works of art, incredible views, ecletic architecture and outdoor dining

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The San Francisco Art Institute

The San Francisco Art Institute

Courtesy of The San Francisco Art Institute
A historical landmark and focal point for San Francisco's impressive art scene, the San Francisco Art Institute is often overlooked as a tourist sight despite its central location and multifaceted offerings.

The school is an architectural marvel, a treasure trove of works of fine art, an outstanding cultural institution and one of the city's best vistas all at once. It easily provides a fascinating afternoon away from the tourist hordes, a night of low cost entertainment or just a great cup of coffee and conversation among friends over one of the city's most panoramic backdrops.

Visiting The San Francisco Art Institute

The San Francisco Art Institute is extremely easy to add to even the most packed sightseeing itineraries; it is located right between North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf, just off of bustling Columbus Avenue and the Cable Car Line. Simply turn south on Chestnut Street and walk the short, but steep, block and a half up Russian Hill to the towering campus.

  • Address: 800 Chestnut Street, San Francisco CA 94133
  • Hours: The San Francisco Art Institute is open to the public seven days a week.
  • Cafe Hours: Monday – Friday, 8:30 am – 4:30 pm
  • Tours: Tours are available Monday through Saturday by appointment, 1-800-345-SFAI.

Architecture and History

Founded in 1871, the school is one of the oldest art institutions in the country. The original monastery-like stone building uses Italian and Spanish colonial styles around a cloistered courtyard, and features baroque arches and terra cotta roof tiles.

In 1963, the school added a starkly modern addition to the building that includes a large concrete outdoor amphitheater, as well as several levels of viewing decks and patios, all with sweeping views over the city and bay. The result is an urban castle that looks like it has one foot in the medieval past and one in a post-modern future yet to come.

Famous landscape photographer Ansel Adams opened the nation's first fine art program in photography here in 1946 and the school has hosted several superstars of the modern art movement either as students or faculty, including Mark Rothko and Imogen Cunningham.

Galleries, Exhibits and Attractions

Besides the awe-inspiring views to the north and the fantastical architecture of the campus itself, the school is also an art-lovers delight, containing several attractions:
  • The huge Diego Rivera mural "The Making of a Fresco" is by far the the most impressive work in the San Francisco Art Institute. This six paneled piece covers an entire gallery wall and depicts workers constructing San Francisco icons like the Golden Gate Bridge. It is one of three Diego Rivera Murals in San Francisco.

  • The Walter and McBean Galleries feature different exhibitions by nationally and internationally renowned artists, often focusing on famous alumni or past faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute.

  • Over in the Swell Gallery, visitors get the chance to see works by current students, who often organize collective shows around particular themes.

The San Francisco Art Institute Cafe

The cafe, which is perched on the rooftop deck, serves breakfast and lunch daily, and is open to the public. Selections are based on organic and regional produce and products and there are several vegan and vegetarian options.

Although splendid views are to be had from the artistically decorated interior, sitting outside on the terrace on a sunny day with an incredible view of Coit Tower and the entire San Francisco Bay spread out before you is the real treat.

Public Programs

The San Francisco Art Institute hosts a variety of events that are open not just to students but to the public at large, including tourists and other visitors to the city.
  • The Visiting Artist and Scholar Series brings current voices in global art and culture to the school, and allows direct audience participation with the speakers.

  • Other programs- including film series, poetry readings, single day workshops in a particular medium and art openings-happen with frequency, but are seldom listed in tourist-oriented websites or brochures.
Check the San Francisco Art Institute's events calendar for current and complete program listings.
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