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Ella King Torrey, 45; Former S.F. Art Institute Leader, Fund-Raiser

Times Staff Writer

Ella King Torrey, a charismatic arts leader who brought national recognition to the San Francisco Art Institute and tripled its endowment during seven years as its president, has died. She was 45.

Torrey, who lived in the Potrero Hill section of San Francisco, apparently took her own life Wednesday. A coroner’s investigation is pending.

Torrey arrived at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1995 from her native Philadelphia, where she worked for the Pew Charitable Trusts and founded its arts fellowships program.

In San Francisco, she became known as a visionary administrator who revitalized the 132-year-old art institute with initiatives ranging from building alliances with local community groups and arts organizations in Europe and China to sending art students into space.

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“I know the heads of many of the great arts schools in this country. There was no one like Ella King Torrey,” said David Ross, the former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. “Ella was one of those rare people who was not just respected but beloved by artists, curators, critics and writers,” Ross said. “She brought energy to a wonderful school which had become a little bit sleepy. Within a month or two of her arrival, she had made the art institute a rival to any of the great art schools in the country.”

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Prolific Fund-Raiser

Torrey was a prolific fund-raiser who increased annual giving to the institute by more than 500%, according to a statement released by the trustees Thursday.

The venerable institute -- the oldest arts organization west of the Mississippi that is singular in its focus on fine art -- has a distinguished roster of alumni and faculty. Over the years, such luminaries as Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Motherwell, Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, Dorothea Lange, David Ireland, Rube Goldberg and Mark Rothko have been associated with it.

Torrey oversaw the development of an extensive visiting-artists program and artist residencies, which brought such well-known names as John Baldessari and Robert Rauschenberg to the edgy North Beach campus. “Artists everywhere wanted to be an artist in residence at the institute,” Ross said.

Under her leadership, the institute also built its new Third Street Center for Graduate Studies, a 52,000-square-foot facility housing the institute’s master’s programs, as well as generous workshop, exhibit and studio space for students and artists.

An art historian by training, Torrey was a woman of eclectic interests. During her undergraduate days at Yale University, she became an expert on the history, development and meaning of the Barbie doll, the subject of a yearlong senior project.

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“She was interested in material culture as an academic discipline,” said author M.G. Lord, whose 1994 book “Forever Barbie” was based in part on Torrey’s undergraduate research. “Ella was completely idiosyncratic.”

Torrey collected pop and folk art, including African American quilts dating to the slavery era that she discovered while working on her master’s degree at the University of Mississippi in the early 1980s. Many of her favorite pieces were displayed in her Potrero Hill home, which was built by a bootlegger in the early 1900s.

From 1985 to 1991, she was a program officer reviewing requests for cultural grants at the Pew Charitable Trusts. She became an advocate of avant-garde conceptual work, convincing the relatively conservative Pew trustees to fund projects such as a five-story-tall wedding dress for the Statue of Liberty by Spanish artist Antoni Miralda and a composition played on foghorns under Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge by composer Alvin Curran.

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Fellowships Director

From 1991 to 1995, Torrey was the founding director of Pew’s art fellowships, a $1.2-million program that awarded the nation’s largest grants to individual artists.

“This wasn’t project-based. It was saying, ‘Here’s some money to let you do your work,’ ” said John Killacky, a program officer for the San Francisco Foundation who worked with Torrey at Pew. “She so believed in supporting individual artists and letting them do their work.”

In 1995, Torrey brought west her commitment to what Killacky called “the new frontier of art practice” when she was chosen to head the San Francisco Art Institute. During her tenure, the institute often made news for the artistic audacity of its students.

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One of her favorite undertakings resulted in the first undergraduates from an art college to participate in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunity Program, which gives students an opportunity to conduct experiments under weightless conditions.

Traditionally, the participants come from schools known for their science and engineering departments.

“We were determined ... to get our students up in the air,” Torrey told the New York Times in 1998. As a result of her advocacy, four San Francisco Art Institute students were sent aloft and used the weightless atmosphere inside a NASA KC-135 turbojet as a canvas in which to float colored orbs of water and paint.

Torrey resigned as president in April 2002, when a downturn in San Francisco’s economy and other factors created some significant financial challenges, including a major long-term debt and operating-budget deficit.

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The challenge was how to “raise the profile of artists and art as a profession without losing the ability to have art without apology,” said Agnes Bourne, a trustee emeritus who worked with Torrey. “We hit some difficult times in the last few years. I think Ella had honestly done the best she could to figure out how to bridge some of these huge financial gaps. That was possibly part of her reason for leaving.”

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Consulting Work

Torrey had spent the last year doing some consulting work and looking for a permanent position. She was juggling a number of possibilities, but learned earlier this week that one job possibility had fallen through. Yet, one close friend said, she had not sounded overly upset about it.

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Torrey is survived by her mother, Ella Russell Torrey; a sister, Elizabeth; and a brother, Russell.

Two services are planned. The first will be at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

A second will be at 7 p.m. May 19 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica.

The family requests that any memorial donations be sent to the Ella King Torrey Arts Fund at the Germantown Friends School, 31 W. Coulter St., Philadelphia, PA 19144.

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