By Savannah Wood
Special to the AFRO

The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) recently celebrated the opening of Migrations and Meaning(s) in Art, a new exhibition curated by Dr. Deborah Willis at the College’s Meyerhoff Gallery. The show, which features work by 35 local and international artists at various stages in their careers, “foregrounds varied experiences on migration from concepts of dislocation, border crossings and storytelling,” Willis said.

The exhibition opening, Jan. 30,  doubled as an opportunity to announce Dr. Willis’s appointment as MICA’s inaugural Stuart B. Cooper Endowed Chair in Photography.

Dr. Deborah Willis accepts one year appointment at MICA. (Courtesy Photo)

Established in 2014 by MICA alumnus Stuart B. Cooper and his wife Rebecca L. Besson, the appointment will change annually, and will be tailored for each scholar who assumes this unique role. For Dr. Willis, the chair position has taken shape as a critic-in-residence. Her appointment will include eight visits over the course of the academic year, during which she will share her practice as an artist, curator and critic, while engaging students in critical discussions about their emerging practices. 

Stuart Cooper created this position “to bring pivotal artists that students dream of spending time with to enhance and expand their futures.” He added, “Dr. Deborah Willis has opened our minds to seeing beyond ourselves, and helped us to see what had, way too long, been ignored. She stands as a unique figure in the betterment of art, education and society as a whole.”

Dr. Willis comes to this position as an art photographer, a renowned historian of photography, the author of several photography books on African-American culture, and a professor and chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Colette Veasey-Cullors, associate dean for Design and Media at MICA and a longtime friend of Dr. Willis, was instrumental in getting her to join MICA in this capacity. 

MICA President Samuel Hoi said, “The appointment of Dr. Willis reinforces MICA’s commitment to what has become a mandate here on campus, known as DEIG or diversity, equity, inclusion and globalization. In practice, it is critical that we highlight and engage trail-blazing contemporary figures in art; such as Dr. Willis, whose work contributes to a new level of openness, and a new definition of excellence in the art historical canon. Working together, we can make the world we imagine a more inclusive place for artists and for everyone.”

Hoi, who was appointed president in 2014, launched a two-year Presidential Task Force on DEIG in the fall of 2015 to address MICA’s past and present diversity issues. This work follows a 2014 open letter from the Black Student Union and the MICA Student Community addressed to Hoi, MICA’s Board and Vice Presidents regarding the College’s handling of a racist incident on campus wherein someone scrawled “kill black people” on a campus elevator wall. In the letter, the students asked why the incident was labelled “a crime with racial bias” rather than a “hate crime,” and among other demands, requested an “increase of recruitment of faculty of color.” 

Students have continued to advocate for their needs at MICA since then. In the spring of 2019, Omolara McCallister Williams (MFA Community Arts ‘20) started Black Crit Week in response to students’ desires to get critical feedback from Black professional artists who were underrepresented in MICA’s faculty. Williams surveyed students to learn who they wanted to hear from, and tailored the once-a-semester events to this feedback. 

In 2019, Deyane Moses (BFA Photography ‘19, MFA Curatorial Studies ‘21) mounted a solo exhibition called Blackives: A Celebration of Black History at MICA, highlighting “stories of promising young Black artists who attempted to study at MICA from 1891 to 1954, but could not because of the color of their skin.” In response to her exhibition, President Hoi issued an official apology from the school acknowledging MICA’s former racist admissions policies, and declared Moses’s exhibition “essential viewing by everyone at MICA.” 

Without a doubt, all of MICA’s BFA Photography candidates will benefit from Dr. Willis’s presence on campus, her scholarship and guidance; but her appointment is especially critical for MICA’s Black students who have been advocating for better representation in the faculty for a long time. This is an exciting step forward for the school and we look forward to seeing how students and administrators will work together to realize the President’s ambitious DEIG plans.

Migrations and Meaning(s) in Art, curated by Dr. Deborah Willis, runs through March 15, at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Meyerhoff Gallery, 1303 W. Mount Royal Ave., Baltimore, Md.