A local philanthropist has given the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles a gift of $10 million, a portion of which will go toward establishing a scholarship for a four-year forever scholarship program named after artist Charles White, who taught at the school during the 1960s and 1970s.
The donation comes from Mei-Lee Ney, chair of the Otis Board of Trustees, and matches the largest gift the college has ever received. The first scholarship will be awarded to a student from an underrepresented group in Los Angeles County who will begin at Otis in the fall of 2022. After its first year, two Charles White scholarships will be awarded to students from underrepresented groups, one from LA County and one from anywhere in the United States (The scholarship covers all four years of study in full. The BFA fee for the 2021-22 academic year is $47,700.)
A little more than half of Otis’ students come from the Los Angeles area, said Charles Hirschhorn, the school’s president, and for me and Otis, it was about being “a good neighbor and participating in our community.”
Half of the $10 million donation will go to the college’s DEI efforts, which include the Charles White Art and Design Scholarship, while the other half will meet other needs that have arisen during the pandemic, including increasing access to technology for students, the college and staff. In honor of Ney’s donation, Otis will rename Product Design Studio after her.
“Diversity is one of the core tenets of Otis College,” Hirschhorn said. “The primary concern is to engage a diverse group of students to support them in achieving success.”
The scholarship is of particular interest given White’s private biography. Before attending the faculty of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1930s, he was awarded two scholarships to study art at other institutions; Both were canceled upon arrival when officials realized White was African American. His spots were distributed to the white students.
A little over a year ago, shortly after joining the school, Hirschhorn realized White’s teaching career at the school, which lasted from 1965 until the artist’s unexpected death from congestive heart failure in 1979. Hirschhorn reached out to White’s son, C. Ian White, an artist who oversees his father’s archive, to forge a new relationship between the school and the property.
“Charles White has an extraordinary, but very special legacy at Otis College in terms of the time he spent here and the students he teaches,” Hirschhorn said. “He has been a teacher, artist, and role model for generations of underrepresented artists. His legacy is still alive through his students and their work. What surprised me is the depth of his legacy and that the college has not fully embraced him.”
Although CalArts, also in the Los Angeles area, is often considered the most important art school in the area during this period, Otis was the only art school in greater Los Angeles that employed African-American artists as faculty members at the time. For this reason, students were drawn to Otis to study specifically with White. Some got perfect grades in school, while others could only afford one course with White. His enrolled students include David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Susan Jackson, Alonzo Davis, Ulysses Jenkins, Richard White Jr., Judith Hernandez, and Eloy Torres. (Charles White and his students were the focus of an exhibition organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2019.)
[Suzanne Jackson and Judithe Hernández are 2021 recipients of the Anonymous Was a Woman grant.]
In a telephone interview, Jackson recalled signing up for White’s class in 1968 shortly after returning to Los Angeles in 1968, when she founded her 32nd Gallery, which promoted the work of African American artists, White made sure to visit the venue and support the work that She was doing.
“Teach us and support. Charles White encouraged independence in us. Don’t be shy, don’t be afraid, just put the line down,” Jackson said he had a go-ahead and risk-taking spirit. “This experience has reinforced everything for me, and that you keep Your passion to do it no matter what.”
In the summer of 2020, with Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Nye Otis gave $1 million to create a senior leadership position at the school that would be dedicated to spearheading a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. She continued to have conversations with Hirschhorn and C. Ian White about how she could continue this type of work.
“I thought: How can I help ensure Charles White becomes a strong representative icon for Otis?” Ney, who is president of asset management firm Richard Ney & Associates and joined the Otis board of directors in 2014. “If I had a legacy, something to leave behind, this scholarship is for me. It’s a big deal.”
Chinese-born Nye, aged 74, immigrated to the United States when she was two years old, shortly before the outbreak of the Korean War; Her family had trouble renting accommodation, and her father, who was a bank manager in Shanghai, was struggling to find work anywhere in the city due to the discrimination he faced. The racial discrimination she faced and by blacks, Asians, and Latinos was a motivating factor in her charitable work. “If we don’t increase our recognition of these communities, we will become irrelevant,” Nye said. “This is a topic that has meant a lot to me my whole life.”
In an interview, Jenkins, who taught with White for two years beginning in the fall of 1977, said that White’s mentorship helped him make significant advances in his practice, moving from drawing and painting to video and performance art for which he is now best known. (Jenkins is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.)
“Getting wisdom from Charles White helped me forge the direction of this work I was about to create,” Jenkins said. This had a lot to do with the philosophical approaches to his work. I took that as a means by which I could do the work I did.”
Jenkins said he hopes this new scholarship will continue to help raise White’s standing as an artist and educator to future generations of artists. “The especially important thing today is for young people to see his work and understand how it came to be,” Jenkins said. Charles didn’t just talk to you about art, he talked about the circumstances of life and in the world. This scholarship will help increase the clarity of the philosophies he was about – the philosophy of Charles White. “