Annual Faculty + Alumni Fine Art Auction Celebrates 20 Years

Supporting the Fine Art Student Scholarship Fund, the event raised over $120,000 this year


Attendees browse the many items on display at this year’s Fine Art Auction. Photo by Bob Toy.

Numbers flew, wine flowed and pulses raced at The Cannery on Nov. 14 when art enthusiasts from the Bay Area and beyond jostled to bid on 409 works of art in the silent auction, and 30 pieces showcased in the live auction at Academy of Art University’s 20th Annual Faculty + Alumni Fine Art Auction. A fundraiser for the Fine Art Student Scholarship Fund, this year’s event raised over $120,000, with half going toward the scholarship fund and half going directly to the artists.

“It’s encouraging for our students to see the enthusiasm and interest there is out in the world for purchasing fine art,” said Academy of Art University School of Fine Art Executive Director Craig Nelson, who had to miss the event for the first time since its inception to attend his son’s engagement party. “It gives them a chance to see that there are people out there that are really interested in buying art.”

Minutes before the silent auction came to a close, a short but intense bidding war erupted over an abstract painting by recent Academy M.F.A. graduate Jean Davis; while across the courtyard, high bidders carried away treasured wins from the live auction, which included a piece by Academy alumnus Greg Gandy that sold for $2,600, fetching the highest price at the live event.

The annual auction launched 20 years ago with a cohort of what Nelson calls a “ragtag group of faculty and alumni.” Over the last two decades, that grassroots event has grown to become a highly anticipated date on the San Francisco arts calendar attracting gallerists, collectors and art enthusiasts from Northern California as well as places farther afield such as New York, Denver and San Diego. 

“I’m thrilled to be here,” said first time attendee Harper Pryor, a San Francisco art collector. “I’ve seen the catalog online in previous years, but I’ve never been here before and there’s nothing like being here.”

Pryor was joined by her friend and fellow collector im Boin, who was impressed by last year’s event and was eager to see what lay in store this year. “I loved it last year. It was outstanding,” Boin said. “I picked up two paintings by [Academy alumnus] Hsin-Yao Tseng, which I just love—a totally new artist for my collection.”

While some collectors are just getting hooked, others have made the event a tradition not only for themselves, but for their families. Robert Finnell, a Bay Area art enthusiast has inspired a love for art making and art collecting in his two teenage daughters who have joined him at the event each year since they were little girls. “They all know us here,” Finnell said. “We’ve probably purchased 25 paintings over the last nine years. We had a couple years where we went nuts and bought like nine. We’re trying to hold back a little bit this year.”

“We always say that and then we end up with like five!” exclaimed Finnell’s 17-year-old daughter Lauren.

Todd Sisitsky and his brood of three young art enthusiasts, 12-year-old Tyler, 10-year-old Mia and 4-year-old Ethan couldn’t have been more excited as they watched their paintings being wrapped.


An attendee makes a bid during the silent auction. Photo by Bob Toy.

“This is our fourth year. Right guys? We really like it,” the San Francisco collector said. “It’s really beautiful art and it’s a fun setting to see it, and I love giving them a chance to get excited about it every year.”

The auction’s robust collection featured a diverse wealth of 80 different artists including School of Fine Art Director of Painting Carolyn Meyer, School of Fine Art instructor Brian Blood, School of Animation instructor Oliver Sin, acclaimed Academy alumni Kevin Moore and Siddharth Parasnis and recent graduate Sahar Mohebi.

School of Fine Art Administrator Dana Sornstein said that while the auction is an important fundraiser for the school, it also provides an opportunity for recent graduates to show their work and get exposure. “Like Leo,” Sornstein explained. “Leo Bugel was an [alumnus], and he sold everything at the very first auction; he was like a rock star."


Vanessa Avery from the School of Fine Art holds up one of the many works available during the live auction. Photo by Bob Toy.

Online Coordinator for the School of Fine Art Beverly Lazor has also benefited from the exposure. She flies up from Los Angeles to attend the event, which featured six of her paintings this year. “One year a gallery came in and saw my work and asked me to be one of their members,” she said. 

Both Nelson and Meyer agree that in addition to being a valuable fundraiser, the auction is a great way to expose artists to the culture of the art world. 

“We want the students to have a chance to see that their work is worth something,” Meyer said. “It’s important that they realize it’s a viable thing. It’s a way to remind them that there is an industry there but we need to teach them to become entrepreneurs, to run their own individual businesses—the business of art, and it’s flourishing right now in the Bay Area.”