After several years of turmoil at the financially strapped San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), the University of San Francisco (USF) announced Tuesday that it has plans to acquire and merge with SFAI, bringing the art institute's degree programs under the USF umbrella.

Things looked grim for SFAI at the start of the pandemic, and after declining enrollment and years of dwindling financial resources, the school announced plans to close permanently and lay off its staff. The complete closure was averted, but with 79 undergraduate and graduates students as of mid-2020, a student body that dwindled over several more months to just 27 by early 2021, the once prestigious institution had certainly seen better days. (The school had reportedly had an enrollment of over 600 students as of 2013.) Add to that some drama over an aborted proposal to sell the school's prized Diego Rivera mural — which led to the resignations of the school's board chair and two other board members — and SFAI has had a rocky couple of years.

Now, USF has stepped in and says it has entered "a period of due diligence" in preparation for a full acquisition of SFAI and its assets — which include the mural, art and film collections, and the school's historic campus on Chestnut Street. This deal would likely also include the assumption of SFAI's debts, which are not inconsiderable — the UC Board of Regents stepped in to buy SFAI's debt in July 2020, to the tune of $19.7 million, effectively becoming the school's landlord for the last year and a half.

The new school within a school would, it seems, be called the San Francisco Art Institute at USF, or SFAI@USF.

According to a release, "The two institutions have been in conversation about possible integration of operations and academic programs in the arts at various times over the past decade, and faculty have collaborated on exhibitions, programs, and initiatives in and beyond classrooms and studios." And, they say, the letter of intent the schools have signed is an agreement "to explore an integration that recognizes the prestige and history of both institutions while opening new doors for future opportunities under a combined entity."

SFAI has been a well respected arts institution for over a century, and its faculty and alumni have repeatedly expressed dismay that it might have to fold. Founded in 1871, it's also one of the country's oldest art schools, and it's been home to many famous students and faculty that have included Richard Diebenkorn, Annie Leibovitz, Angela Davis, Cristóbal Martínez, Barry McGee, Catherine Opie, David Park, Mark Rothko, and Ansel Adams.

"USF is delighted to join with SFAI and to work with the faculty, staff, and leadership to explore this exciting opportunity to create a distinctive program of arts education, unique in higher education," says USF Board Chair John F. Nicolai in a statement. "We believe SFAI@USF would be a tremendous benefit to the Bay Area, the nation, and the world."

SFAI Board Chair Lonnie Graham issued his own statement about the proposed merger saying, "We were foremost impressed by USF's profound commitment to social justice and especially by its deep understanding of the power of the arts to be a significant pillar of change in the world. USF has shown the depth of its commitment to be a major force for change in legal systems, social programs, education, and technology."

Graham adds, "This union would create an innovative confluence of the arts and academics to advance a curriculum that reinforces the value of the arts in changing the world."

News of this acquisition/merger follows not long after the finalization of an acquisition of Mills College in Oakland — another historic institution that fell on hard times in part due to dwindling enrollment and nearly had to shut down — by Northeastern University.

USF and SFAI's announcement indicates that the due-diligence period will include drafted plans by both schools' faculty on how to redesign and integrate their curricula "to ensure the new integrated academic unit would reflect the vision and mission of both institutions."

Previously: SF Art Institute Cleans House After Controversial Attempt to Sell Diego Rivera Mural