Charles White Scholarship Billboard at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California (courtesy the Charles White Archive)

Otis College of Art and Design, the oldest independent art school in Los Angeles, announced last week that it would officially be expanding its Charles White Art & Design Scholarship, a four-year, full-tuition award to support artists from under-represented groups. The inaugural Charles White Scholarship was established last year with a $10 million gift from Mei-Lee Ney, chair of Otis’s board of trustees, and was intended to support one student from Los Angeles County. Beginning in 2023, the award will be given to a second student from anywhere in the United States.

“Priority will be given to students who identify as Black/African-American; Latinx; Asian; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; American Indian or Alaska Native; or students who identify as bi- or multi-racial,” announces Otis’s website. Full tuition for the 2022-23 academic year is $49,100.

“[Otis] is one of the most diverse colleges in the U.S. — 72% of its student body identifies as a student of color; over 90% receive financial aid; and, upon graduation, over 90% will find employment in the creative economy,” adds a press statement by the schools.

The announcement comes just months after Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel and his wife Miranda Kerr pledged to repay the student debt of Otis’s graduating class of 2022, the largest single gift in Otis’s history.

Charles White at Otis with former student Stan Wilson (courtesy the Charles White Archive)

Charles White was an artist, activist, and educator, who is known for his depictions of African-American figures that reflected a sense of heroism, dignity, and pathos. Born in Chicago in 1918 (the same year Otis was founded), White lived in New York as a young man, before moving to Los Angeles in 1956. He became the first Black American faculty member at Otis when he began teaching there in 1965, and was head of the Drawing Department at the time of his death in 1979. As a dedicated teacher and mentor, he had a lasting influence on the scores of students who passed through his classes, the list of whom includes Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, and Judithe Hernández. (In 1971, White was included alongside Hammons and Timothy Washington in Three Graphic Artists, the first exhibition of contemporary Black artists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.)

White’s own educational and artistic journey was challenged by discrimination and racism. Before he attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he had received two scholarships to study art at other schools. The offers were rescinded when the institutions found out he was African American, and given to White applicants.

In a video produced by LACMA on the occasion of the 2019 exhibition Life Model: Charles White and his Students, White’s former student Stan Wilson describes how White was denied entry to his own exhibition “somewhere in the South.”

“Well you’re a stronger man than me,” Wilson recalls telling his teacher. “I just probably wouldn’t have gone with that whole deal anyway,” to which White replied, “‘Well, somebody had to open the door […] and now the door is open for you to go in.'”

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Matt Stromberg

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.