Artist Catherine Opie, the New Chair of UCLA’s Art Department, on How She Hopes to Make Her Students Debt-Free

The artist and educator plans to raise $10 million for the program over the next three years. 

Catherine Opie, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

David Geffen donated $150 million to the Yale School of Drama this week, allowing current and future students to attend the prestigious program tuition-free. But for most universities, name-brand philanthropists don’t just back up trucks full of money on the campus lawn every day.

So explains Catherine Opie, who was just named chair of the art department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Unlike the many artists and administrators who see fundraising as an exercise akin to teeth pulling, Opie isn’t turned off by the process.

“I’m particularly comfortable as an artist in terms of thinking in a philanthropic way because I view myself as a philanthropist,” Opie told Artnet News, referring to the frequent donations, often in the form of her art, she makes to schools and other organizations in her orbit. “And because I’ve served on numerous boards, I don’t feel uncomfortable in asking and putting those goals forth. The reality is that all institutions are reliant on more and more philanthropy these days.” (Opie just stepped down from the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art to focus on her new role.)

The UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. Courtesy of UCLA.

The UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. Courtesy of UCLA.

Upon taking the gig, Opie vowed to raise $10 million for the department over the next three years—a pot of money that would be put toward endowed scholarships for students and professorships for faculty. The primary goal, she explained, is to give students the opportunity to finish school debt-free.

“I have students leaving school and they tell me they are $60,000 in debt. That’s not sustainable,” she said. “How’re you going to do anything?” 

Philanthropy, Opie said, does not have to be monolithic. “I want everybody to understand that they can participate. If you are an alum and you have an extra $100, go ahead and send it in for a special scholarship fund,” she said. “A little can add up to a lot, but also hopefully we’ll get some major gifts from philanthropists as well.”

Institutions today rely on the largesse of the wealthy donors more than ever before, including at UCLA, part of the University of California school system. And Opie, for her part, is prepared to ask donors to crack their wallets for her department. 

It’s for this reason that the artist has decided not to seek reelection to the board of MOCA, where she’s been a member for the past eight years. There will come a time she has to ask her fellow trustees at the museum to consider UCLA. “I’m a stickler for transparency and good governance,” she said. (Opie’s departure from the MOCA board has nothing to do with the ongoing upheaval at the institution, she noted. The artist is currently serving on the committee tasked with finding a new director for the museum.) 

She is, however, not above throwing out a hail mary. “I’m here, Mr. Geffen!” she said, laughing. “I’d love to have a conversation with you.”

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