Mei-Lee Ney, Chair of Otis’s Board of Trustees (photo by Monica Nouwens)

LOS ANGELES — This month, two Southern California art schools announced donations aimed at increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion on their campuses. On August 17, Otis College of Art and Design announced that Mei-Lee Ney, Chair of the Board of Trustees, would be contributing $1 million to support anti-racism initiatives. These include “additional scholarships and the hiring of a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) executive role,” according to the press release. On August 28, the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) announced a $5 million gift from philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton to establish the Charles Gaines Faculty Chair “to provide much-needed support to Black and underrepresented faculty in the School of Art,” as per their release.

Ney’s donation builds off Otis’s June announcement of initiatives to support Black students, “including a commitment to being an anti-racist institution; mandatory anti-racism training for faculty, staff, and students; $1.5 million in new aid for culturally diverse and underserved students; and additional aid for 2020 Summer of Art students from local high schools,” as the press release states.

“Recent events around social justice, equity, and fairness inspired us to both share initiatives and clearly announce our anti-racism position,” Karen Hill, Chair of Otis’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, wrote to Hyperallergic over email. “Now is the time to share more of who we are, where we’re going, and how our institution can be a part of lasting change.”

One significant step towards this goal is the launch of the Black Creatives Institute (BCI), which took place online from August 10 to 14, and is aimed at increasing first- and second-year retention, student success, and graduation rates for Black-identified students. The week-long program consisted of one to two workshops a day meant to foster “a sense of belonging, community, and connections as Black creatives,” said Nicholas Negrete, Dean of Student Affairs, who is on the BCI’s organizing committee. In addition to supporting connections between students, the BCI provides each participating student with a faculty mentor, who will work with them over the course of the school year.

According to Negrete, the overall percentage of African American students at Otis is about 5%, while the percentage of incoming Black students this fall is closer to 9.5%.

Although Negrete and his team had been planning the BCI since the end of 2019, recent events around racial justice convinced them of the immediate urgency of the program. “With all that has happened around racial justice, that propelled us to speed up our timeline, to launch now, not next year,” he said. The coronavirus pandemic forced them to pivot online from what was supposed to be an in-person project, essentially putting the online project together in eight weeks.

Negrete says that they took a “data-driven approach” to identify which groups needed the most attention, finding that African American students at Otis had lower than average retention and graduation rates. “We made a point to say we’re focusing on Black students now,” Negrete said. “We want to make sure we’re focused on student body populations that we haven’t served well historically. Let’s figure out how to do this well, so when we do expand, we have a good model to go off of.”

Charles Gaines at the exhibition Charles Gaines: Gridwork, 1974-1989 at the Hammer Museum (photo by Steve Gunther, courtesy CalArts)

While Otis’s initiatives are focused primarily on students, the CalArts donation is meant to support Black-identified faculty. Norton’s $5 million gift will endow the Charles Gaines Faculty Chair, named for the influential African American artist and educator who has taught at CalArts for three decades and mentored generations of students, including Mark Bradford, Lauren Halsey, and Edgar Arceneaux. Gaines will be the first to hold the position, while future appointments will be given to teachers “from underrepresented groups, including those who self-identify as Black,” according to the release.

“[Gaines’s] dedication to his practice as well as to his teaching exemplifies what a professor should be,” Norton told Hyperallergic via email.

“He’s been outspoken as someone who’s indicated throughout his career that the society in which we live is based on a white supremacist structure,” CalArts President Ravi Rajan told Hyperallergic. “Everything it creates, including CalArts and the art world, is representative of that structure. He’s always been consistent with that critique, in a thoughtful, direct, and evidence-based way.”

Although Norton’s donation is specifically focused on supporting a diverse faculty, Rajan notes how meaningful the endowed position will be for the students as well. “Representationally, it’s important that people see Black artists on faculty,” he said. “Students have been vocal about wanting to see that the faculty body is diverse. They want to see viewpoints that are culturally similar to their own.”

As with Otis, CalArts’s decision was based on looking at which groups are underserved. “For us, the most underrepresented faculty and students are Black and Native populations.”

Demographics listed on CalArts’s website show that African American students accounted for only about 4% of the entire student body in fall of 2019, while Black faculty were about 6%. (According to the 2018 American Community Survey, African Americans are estimated to be 7% of the population of LA County, and 14% of the total US population.)

For Rajan, launching an initiative like this — “baking it into the endowment,” as he puts it — is a way to introduce change to the system so that it will have lasting effect, making it more than just lip service. “If you don’t introduce something with purpose, it’s hard to change,” he said. “You have to interrupt the old way of doing and being, you have to introduce it with purpose, making it a structural part of who we are.”

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.