Deborah Willis, an artist and historian whose game-changing exhibitions and books have reshaped the study of photography, has won the Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art, an award given out by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Much of Willis’s work has dealt with the history of Black photography, specifically as it relates to gender. She is currently chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“She understood the power of photography to provide connectivity, access, and inspiration well in advance of social media’s dawn, and she has been at the forefront of scholarship on African-American art, sharing her inquisitive vision and deep knowledge with students and artists in noteworthy exhibitions, books, and conferences,” art historian Cheryl Finley wrote in ARTnews in 2020.
Her 2009 book, Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, and a similarly named show that she curated are regarded as touchstones. Both explored how images were essential in solidifying notions about Black beauty that are now deeply embedded in our culture.
In the introduction to Posing Beauty, Willis asks “How is the notion of beauty idealized and exploited in the media, in hip-hop culture, in art? Is black beauty a conditioning? Does beauty matter?”
Her influence on the field extends back to the ’80s. In 1980, she became the first head of photographs at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. During that decade, she also published an important survey of Black photographers active between 1840 and 1940; many of those artists were at that time largely under-recognized.
During the ’90s, she organized exhibitions for the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for African-American History and Culture.
In a statement, Willis said, “I believe that the arts are essential in changing the world: by witnessing with reflection, uplifting diverse stories, and elevating multiple narratives of desire, pleasure and loss, I hope that my artistic practice, research and scholarship, teaching and mentoring advance justice and promote hope.”
Unlike many other art awards of its scale, The Don Tyson Prize is not solely given to artists. Past winners have included Project Row Houses, the Archives of American Art, and the artist vanessa german. Willis is the first historian to win the award, which is given out every other year.