Art Schools Have Historically Been Inhospitable to Black Students. Two California Philanthropists Are Trying to Change That

Mei-Lee Ney and Eileen Norton have donated towards supporting diversity initiatives and hiring from underrepresented groups.

Mei-Lee Ney, chair of Otis College board of trustees. Image via Otis College.
Mei-Lee Ney, chair of Otis College board of trustees. Image via Otis College.

Two California philanthropists have stepped in to lend a hand to diversity initiatives at high profile Southern California art schools, in the form of grants to support Black faculty and students at CalArts and Otis College of Art and Design at a crucial time. The news was first reported by Hyperallergic.

In mid-August, Otis College announced that Mei-Lee Ney, who is chair of the board of trustees of the school, would contribute $1 million to bolster anti-racism initiatives. According to a statement, her gift will facilitate the immediate launch of initiatives, including additional scholarships and the hiring of a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) executive role.

“I made my donation because racial injustice is something I feel strongly about,” said Ney in the statement. “Systemic racism within our educational, financial, and societal institutions disproportionately affects Black communities and can create additional obstacles for students, faculty, and staff.”

Ney is the president of Richard Ney & Associates Asset Management.

Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles. Image via Otis.edu

Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles. Image via Otis.edu

In a June 1 statement, Otis College president Charles Hirschhorn said: “We all need to work together to actively address the structural inequality in our society, and in higher education. Black Lives Matter at Otis.” The school has also introduced new initiatives to support Black students including a commitment to being an anti-racist institution, mandatory anti-racism training for faculty, staff, and students, and $1.5 million in new aid for diverse and underserved students.

Earlier this month, Otis also launched the Black Creatives Institute, a program focused on developing an inclusive and affirming on-campus climate for incoming Black-identified students. It aims to increase student engagement, as well as first- to second-year retention and degree completion. (In an article last year for Artnet News, Melissa Smith documented the particular pattern of burnout faced by Black students lacking proper support in art school.)

Eileen Norton at the 2012 Hammer Gala at Hammer Museum. Photo by Stefanie Keenan/WireImage. Image courtesy of Getty.

Eileen Norton at the 2012 Hammer Gala at Hammer Museum. Photo by Stefanie Keenan/WireImage. Image courtesy of Getty.

The news from Otis comes on top of a similar initiative at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). On August 28, the school announced a $5 million gift from philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton. It will establish the Charles Gaines Faculty Chair, named after the artist who has taught at CalArts for 30 years, mentoring a host of younger artists who are now receiving acclaim, including Mark Bradford, Lauren Halsey, and Edgar Arceneaux.

Fittingly, Gaines himself will be the first teacher to hold the position. Future appointments will be given to teachers “from underrepresented groups, including those who self-identify as Black,” according to the statement.

The current overall percentage of African American students at Otis is about five percent, while the percentage of incoming Black students this fall is closer to nine and a half percent, dean of student affairs Nicholas Negrete told Hyperallergic. Negrete is on the organizing committee of the Black Creatives Institute.

At CalArts, African American students accounted for about four percent of the student body in the fall of 2019. Black faculty accounted for about six percent.


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