A local philanthropist has given Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles a $10 million gift, part of which will go toward establishing an endowment for a four-year scholarship program in perpetuity named after artist Charles White, who taught at the school during the 1960s and ’70s.
The donation comes from Mei-Lee Ney, who is the chair of Otis’s board of trustees, and matches the largest gift the college has ever received. The first scholarship will be awarded to a student from an under-represented group in Los Angeles County who will start at Otis in fall 2022. After its first year, two Charles White scholarships will be awarded to students from under-represented groups, one hailing from L.A. County and one from anywhere in the U.S. (The scholarship covers all four years of tuition in its entirety. Full-year BFA tuition to Otis for the 2021–22 academic year is $47,700.)
Just over half of Otis’s students come from the L.A. area, and for Ney and Otis, it was about being “a good neighbor and participant in our community,” said Charles Hirschhorn, the school’s president.
Half of the $10 million donation will go toward the college’s DEI efforts, which includes the endowment for 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, faculty, and staff. In honor of Ney’s donation, Otis will rename its Product Design Studio after her.
“Diversity is one of the foundational principles of Otis College,” said Hirschhorn. “A primary concern is engaging a diverse student population to support them in achieving success.”
The scholarship is of particular importance considering White’s own biography. Prior to enrolling at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1930s, he had received two scholarships to study art at other institutions; they were both rescinded upon his arrival when administrators realized that White was African American. His spots were subsequently given to white students.
A little over a year ago, shortly after he joined the school, Hirschhorn became aware of 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 archives, to establish a relationship between the school and the estate anew.
“Charles White has an extraordinary legacy writ large but very specifically at Otis College in terms of his time here and the students he taught,” Hirschhorn said. “He was a teacher, an artist, and a role model for generations of underrepresented artists. His legacy is still alive through his students and their work. What surprised me was the depth of his legacy and that it wasn’t being fully embraced by the college.”
Though CalArts, which is also in the L.A. area, is often considered to be the region’s most important art school during this period, Otis was only the art school in Greater L.A. that employed African American artists as faculty members at the time. Because of this, students were drawn to Otis to study specifically with White. Some earned full degrees at the school, while others could only afford to take one course with White. His storied list of students includes David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Suzanne Jackson, Alonzo Davis, Ulysses Jenkins, Richard Wyatt Jr., Judithe Hernández, 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.)
In a phone interview, Jackson recalled signing up to take White’s class in 1968 shortly after moving back to L.A. In 1968, when she founded her storied Gallery 32, which promoted the work of African American artists, White made a point of visiting the space and supporting the work she was doing.
“He taught us and supported us. Charles White encouraged independence in us. He had that spirit of going ahead and taking the risk: ‘Don’t be timid, don’t be afraid, just put the line down,’” Jackson said. She added, “That experience solidified everything for me, that you keep the passion to do it no matter what.”
In summer 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Ney gave Otis $1 million to creative a senior leadership position at the school that would be dedicated to leading its diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy. She went on to have conversations with Hirschhorn and C. Ian White about how she could continue that kind of work.
“I thought: How can I help ensure Charles White becomes a strong representative symbol for Otis?” said Ney, who is president of the asset management firm Richard Ney & Associates and joined Otis’s board in 2014. “If I have a legacy, something to leave behind, this scholarship is that to me. It’s a big deal.”
Born in China, Ney, now 74, immigrated to the United States when she was 2, shortly before the outbreak of the Korean War; her family had trouble renting housing and her father, who had been a bank manager in Shanghai, struggled to find work anywhere in the city because of the discrimination he faced. Racial discrimination faced by her and by Black, Asian, and Latinx people have been a motivating factor in her philanthropy. “If we don’t increase our recognition of these communities, we’re just going to become irrelevant,” Ney said. “This is a subject that has meant a lot to me for my entire life.”
In an interview, Jenkins, who studied with White for two years beginning in fall 1977, said that it was through White’s mentorship that helped him make a major breakthrough in his practice, transitioning from painting and drawing to the video and performance art he is now best known for. (Jenkins is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.)
“Having the opportunity to get the wisdom from Charles White helped me to formulate the direction of that work that I was about to create,” Jenkins said. “That had a lot to do with the philosophical approaches in his work. I took that as means of which I could do the work that I did.”
Jenkins said that he hopes this new scholarship will continue to help raise White’s profile as an artist and teacher to future generations of artist to come. “The thing that’s important today in particular is for young people to see his work and understand how that work came into existence,” Jenkins said. “Charles not only talked to you about art but talked about the conditions in life and in the world. This scholarship will help raise the visibility of the philosophies that he was about—the Charles White philosophy.”