The Academy of Art’s auto museum is operating without city permits. Of course it is.


The 1929 Duesenberg Model J convertible sedan is a hell of a way to get from here to there. At the time of its manufacture, its mere bare chassis retailed for $8,500; the finished product could run you a cool $20 grand. 

Twenty grand is a fair chunk of change for a car now. In 1929, it had the buying power of $300,000 today. With a tinge of schadenfreude, we can note that those disgorging this vast sum may have regretted it when, 90 years ago almost to the day, the bottom fell out of the stock market. 

But for those who held onto their Model J — or their heirs — it has turned out to be a worthwhile investment. The Academy of Art recently sold one for $1.16 million — one of seven vehicles it moved in an August 2018 Monterey auction for $2.8 million. 

The university sold 30 more cars in Las Vegas in November, 2018, for $3.7 million; four cars in Indianapolis in May, 2019, for $467,500; and 15 more cars in Monterey in August of this year for $1.69 million. 

All told, in a year’s time, the Academy unloaded 56 cars for just under $9 million. If it accepts the high bids on 30 other cars that haven’t yet sold, it’ll pocket nearly $5 million more. 

The university, per Rob Fisher, the CEO of its auto museum, is thinning its collection and selling off duplicates and whatnot. It’s down from around 250 vehicles to 170, and what’s left is the “best of the best.” You can drop by and see much of it yourself at the corner of Van Ness and Washington — just remember to make an appointment beforehand and show up during the four open hours per week.  

It will come as a surprise to nobody even mildly familiar with the Academy of Art’s San Francisco M.O. that this museum is operating without any of the necessary permitting. “The museum use (limited to the ground floor) is a long standing, but not currently permitted use,” reads a letter from the City Attorney’s office. 

If you or I did this — if we set up a museum in our garage and began charging folks to take a gander at the Subaru — we’d probably get a tap on the shoulder from the city. And then something a bit more punitive. Punitive enough to make us stop. 

And yet, people have been showing up at the Academy of Art’s museum, paying $10 to $15 a pop, and going in for years — since at least 2012

Academy of Art’s cozy relationship with this city’s powers-that-be, even while it  brazenly flouts San Francisco’s rules and laws — with little in the way of consequences — has been the status quo for generations. But, in the not-too-distant future, that may change. 

And, in that not-too-distant future, the Academy of Art could do well to amass a little bit of folding money.

It’ll need it. 

 You may have noticed fliers plastered on the Academy’s many San Francisco properties announcing a November hearing regarding the status of 34 structures.  (The school’s Institutional Master Plan lists 43 San Francisco properties). 

This is the closing stanza of the 2016 “global settlement” it reached with the city following decades of overt shredding of land-use and rent-control laws. Getting that museum properly permitted is not even one of the 50 most significant portions of this sprawling agreement; if the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors give their blessing, the Academy will pay some $58 million to the city, and vacate nine of its 43 buildings.   

This is a significant amount of money. You could buy 50 Duesenbergs for this — or, as the city plans to do, build or otherwise obtain a goodly amount of affordable housing. 

But it says a lot about both the Academy and this city that this $58 million penalty would appear to be a reasonable cost of doing business after years of rule-breaking and cat-and-mouse games. And it says an awful lot about the Academy of Art and this city that being sued by City Attorney Dennis Herrera may have truly been a blessing in disguise. 

This way, instead of going through a knock-down drag-out public process over every last window pane in every last Academy holding, all of that is done behind closed doors — and then subject to simple public up or down votes. 

“It’s all expedited,” agrees Academy lawyer David Millstein (The Academy goes through lawyers like Spinal Tap went through drummers; it has churned through more than a dozen of them in the past decade and change. “I am the last attorney,” says a laughing Millstein, who signed on in the fall. We’ll see). 

Like that Duesenberg, the Academy of Art came into being in ’29. For much of its existence, it was a workaday art institute. Since Elisa Stephens, the granddaughter of its founder, took the reins in 1992, that changed. 

The school began acquiring its nearly four-dozen buildings, rampantly abusing city land-use and rent-control statutes. It fashioned a lucrative business of funneling government money into family pockets via federal loans that left its student body deeply in debt. It admitted 100 percent of applicants and graduated fewer than a third of them.

But you know this. Or at least you’ve had every opportunity to know this: Katia Savchuk brilliantly documented it all in 2015. That story was so good it induced a local editor to publicly lament that they wished their publication wrote it. But, here’s the thing: It did, and all the way back in 2010. Your humble narrator wrote about this in 2008. My talented former colleague Matt Smith nailed it in 2001.  

A dodgy, for-profit college amassing a real-estate empire under the guise of an art institute, cannibalizing affordable housing in the most housing-impacted city in all the realm, rampantly driving students into debt, and blithely violating the Planning Code for 28 unanswered years while being coddled by the city’s societal and political elites ought to be a big story — every day. 

But it wasn’t, because we’ve become inured to this situation. As we’ve become inured to so much in San Francisco that’s just obviously wrong. 

That it took this long to reach some manner of legal denouement with the Academy of Art is a mark of shame for this city. The school’s unobscured and untrammeled lawbreaking and insinuation into the city’s elite power structure is something you’d expect to see in some kleptocratic failed state, not here. 

Well, here it is.  

We now blithely accept ubiquity of the move-fast break-things business model pioneered by Academy of Art: Overrun this city, co-opt its leaders, and then ask for forgiveness rather than permission. 

It is the constant, traffic-like thrum in every San Franciscan’s ear.

Maybe that’ll begin to change next month. But maybe not. 

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches; I must make amends.