President Hoi Discusses Artists as Changemakers on the Free to Bmore Podcast

MICA President Sammuel Hoi recently joined the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Free to Bmore podcast to discuss how art and artists can be changemakers in our society. Comparing artistic expression to a super power, President Hoi spoke about the arts as an important tool for social, cultural, technological, and innovative advancement.

Among the highlights of the discussion:

  • President Hoi on artists today and the education they require (7:42 - 9:01)
  • President Hoi on artists as entrepreneurs (9:27 - 12:12)
  • President Hoi on placing "thrive with Baltimore" in MICA's mission statement (13:58 - 15:24)
  • President Hoi on MICA's acknowledgement and apology for the College's racist past (18:03 - 20:08)
  • President Hoi on collaborating with communities in Baltimore (27:08 - 29:38)

The full recording of the podcast can be found on this page. In addition to the highlights noted above, the full transcript is provided below. 


Meghan McCorkell: Welcome to the Free to BMore podcast by the Enoch Pratt Free Library. I'm your host Meghan McCorkell. This podcast series features conversations with leaders and innovators having a positive impact in our city. Let's get started. Your journey starts here. He's been called a visionary, forward-thinking leader from Los Angeles to DC, from Paris to New York, and now Baltimore. Sammy Hoi has been a force in arts education. Today, as president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, he is a believer that art and artists can be change makers in our society. Sammy Hoi, thank you so much for joining us.

 Sammy Hoi: Thank you so much for inviting me to join you.

MM: Absolutely. So, I want to talk about a really broad topic first. I've heard you talk about the power of arts as a change agent in society. How do you feel like the arts can truly make a difference?

SH: Great question. Many people love experiencing the arts and love participating in the arts, but they tend to have a very narrow idea about art—thinking of it as being a recreational, dispensable activity in life. But as matter of fact, I think arts and cultural expressions are powerful expressions of humanity. In society, it is an important tool for social, cultural, technological, and innovation advancement. So I think MICA, and our community at MICA, think deeply about how to broaden people's understanding of the true power of art and design; and also how to prepare the next generations of artists and designers and art educators who actually can help broaden that understanding as well.

For example, if you think about the arts, most people think about painting, drawing, museums—maybe a magazine or poster design. But if you really think about, say, an iPhone, think about the four things that make an iPhone really powerful and so attractive. One is technology, one is the design, one is actually the user experience of how to navigate through the applications, and then [there] is the marketing. Now, three out of those four things—the user experience, the design, and marketing—are all in creative fields. So, if you think about art and culture in that manner, you can see it actually has a widespread application and power in a way that people tend to not see it. So, it's kind of like a very invisible super power that people don't recognize, and I think we are trying to reveal, you know, that power to everyone. And on community building, there's a movement called creative placemaking which is…how do you use place-based art and cultural expression to really lift underserved communities, and give that kind of power to the people and power of imagination of how to move communities along? That is something that MICA is very interested in a building into our curriculum. 

MM: I'm going to go back and sort of in the past for you. Arts of really always been a part of your life. Was your family really involved in the arts when you're growing up?

SH: Yes, my father had a business. It was a self-started business in Chinese furniture, import/export ... trading. So I grew up with beautiful objects at home and also in the shop. I would say a tangentially, I always was influenced by aesthetics. But none of my family members had gone in the arts, and I think my parents looked at the arts more as a kind of pragmatic matter versus anesthetic matter ... I'm one of the few family members who have pursued it as a life path.

MM: Your life path has taken quite a few turns. You have a degree in psychology and French. You have a law degree. Tell me a little bit about what led you into art education.

SH: I would say it was a very fortunate early life crisis, as they call it. I had a very traditional upbringing, as I've just described to you … wonderful loving family and very good values. But the arts were just not one of those things you would pursue for vocation or for life's sake. I internalized that belief, and when I went to school, I earned a liberal arts undergraduate degree that I love. Then when I went to graduate school, I pursued a law degree, which in my mind was very practical. When I was in law school, I realized that while intellectually I was extremely stimulated, spiritually, I wasn't fulfilled as a human being. So I questioned then ... if perhaps I should just not think about practicality and pursue really what I loved. I looked back in my life and saw that art was always there. So, basically, I finished law school, got my license to practice, and promptly retired as an attorney and went back to art school. And it was in art school that I sort of stumbled into administration as a work study.  I found that wonderful synergy of being in the creative field, but at the same time, [I discovered] the problem solution of analytical work and strategic planning, etc. With my fundamental belief in education being a powerful pathway for people to find themselves and to make contributions and also to advance ... the pathway of art education, administration, and program shaping became my life path. I really stumbled upon it.

 MM: Was there like a lightbulb moment that you thought, ‘this is it’?

 SH: Absolutely. I could go back and think of a lightbulb moment. Definitely. When I was in art school, I did the administration work  as a work study for tuition., and then afterwards, for two to three years, I continued down that path. I was very lucky. When I was very young, I was sent by my Alma Mater and also the first school I work for, Parsons School of Design, to Paris to head its foreign campus. It was a tiny, tiny little campus in France, but it was a wonderful experience. So I was thrown into an educational leadership position. And I think that was my light bulb moment, when I had the opportunity to really think about the programming for the little campus that we had, and to deal with everything related to it. Then I saw that all my skill sets, from law school to my art training to my—I’m somebody that is Chinese American with a Chinese background in believing that Confucius path of education being a way for advancement—it really all came together beautifully. I thought, ‘Oh! This is something I could do for the rest of my life.’ And again, I've been fortunate that opportunities kept coming  so that I could do it up to now, which is have been for several decades.

 MM: How much has the curriculum at art school changed since you went to where we are today? I mean, it seems revolutionarily different.

 SH:  Technology has kind of escalated and evolved. Art education really has expanded in its possibility and practice tremendously over the last few decades. I would say for almost a century, there was not that much movement in art education. If you think about 20th century, it was still about training artists and designers and art educators that would stay close to their disciplines. So painters would become painters or maybe teachers, and designers would do design practice. But over the last  two decades or so, in this new millennium, the rapid evolution in technology, the advancement of the gig economy, and also the breaking down of barriers among different fields have opened up the possibilities greatly for artists and designers. There was a very interesting 2016 study by the National Endowment of the Arts called Arts Connect. It described the current working conditions and also in the foreseeable future for artists and designers. And basically, it paints accurately a picture of creatives nowadays working with technology, working across fields, working in fields that are traditionally not thought of in kind of the arts and design arena—and also becoming increasingly entrepreneurial. And, very promisingly, the creative workforce is becoming bigger and more diverse and more productive. So all these can spur new thinking and new practices and in art and design education.

The report also pointed out that the education training system is not keeping pace, and that gives innovative schools like MICA the opportunity to innovate and lead the way. And that's what we're trying to do.

 MM: You mentioned entrepreneurship. How much is that such a huge part of what you're teaching students now? Because feels like artists were kind of the original entrepreneurs.

 SH: You are absolutely right. I think artists and designers are the original entrepreneurs because they really have learn how to communicate their passion and ideas to gallery owners or partners and people who provide resources. They have to figure out how to display their work or fund their projects. But the interesting thing is that artists and designers traditionally have not thought of themselves as entrepreneurs, and often, because of the older way of looking at things, there is almost this reticence about participating fully in commerce and in the world. Because there is  an old school belief that if you were outside of the world, you could actually critique and the world, and you could actually do more independent work. But I think that Millennials or Gen Z, young people, will say now that there's not that kind of barrier anymore. The younger generations are very bold, and they’re comfortable being in the world and making a difference and being critical at the same time. Because of that, entrepreneurship is really important to art and design and education training, but, as I said, is really not a standard part of our design education yet. And MICA is changing that.

 Actually, yesterday, we just announced a $5 million dollar gift from the [Phillip E. and Carole R.] Ratcliffe Foundation to help us establish a Center for Creative Entrepreneurship at MICA to allow us to take a whole-college approach to creative entrepreneurship. We will not only have our annual UP/Start competition that funds our graduates in creative businesses, we are now starting to build entrepreneurship into the curriculum. Students coming in can self-identify as creative entrepreneurs and have not only a curriculum but a cohort of fellow entrepreneurial students. We will have live-learn communities … will be inviting in entrepreneurs in residence at MICA.

We also are very mindful that however we support MICA students, we also need to support citizens and creatives in the city that are not affiliated with MICA. So part of the funding also supports an existing program called the Baltimore Creatives Acceleration Network (BCAN) that provides entrepreneurial support to creatives without requiring an affiliation with MICA. And that's all through the neighborhoods. Actually, the Pratt Library is a partner to BCAN, so we're very excited about that.

And, also, at MICA, we really think of entrepreneurship not necessary just about business. It's also about how to make one’s passion become a life ... to help that passion be meaningful. So, for us, creative business entrepreneurship and social-preneurship are together. That's the way we're educating artists and designers.

 MM: You talked a little bit on how MICA has making this impact within Baltimore, as touched on by your mission, which is to empower students to forge creative purposeful lives and careers in a diverse and changing world; thrive with Baltimore; make the world we imagine. Why was that piece about thriving with Baltimore so important to put in that mission statement?

 SH:  Well, first of all, it is very important to the MICA community. When I came to MICA as a new president in summer of 2014, I spent working with our community, meeting our faculty, students, trustees, and staff, before working to re-articulate our mission and vision … to state our contemporary purpose. We had two years to discover what are the most important things to people on campus. We posed a number of questions to our community, and one of the questions was, ‘What do you really care about? What do you feel that MICA must state in a way that we haven’t embraced or articulated before?’ One thing that kept coming up again and again was our roots in Baltimore, our coexistence with Baltimore, and how could MICA make Baltimore a better place as Baltimore makes MICA a better place? In our previous mission, Baltimore didn't exist at all. So in this one, Baltimore had to be there.

And ‘thrive with’ was also something we considered very carefully. We didn't say ‘elevate,’ we didn't say ‘strengthen.’ We went with ‘thrive with,’ because, in our mind, an equitable relationship has to be a 50/50 relationship. We chose that word very carefully, and we positioned it in between the first part of our mission statement, which is about our educational mission and how we empower students in the diverse and changing world—and then [before the next part] ‘making the world we imagine.’ We wanted Baltimore to be, in a way, a rooted commitment locally, but not one that would limit our aspiration globally to make the world a better place. And as a matter of fact, we wanted to create that kind of interchange and exchange between Baltimore and the world.

I'll give you an example. One of our most amazing alums is Amy Sherald,  who also taught at MICA. While she came to Baltimore from somewhere else, her formative years as an artist, as a student, was in Baltimore. While she was here, she made incredibly powerful paintings and portraitures. She now has a base in Brooklyn, but also has a very strong presence in Baltimore. You see her action Baltimore all the time. That is a good example of ‘thrive with Baltimore’ and ‘make the world you imagine.’ I think MICA supports that kind of talent, who will take the Baltimore spirit, in a way, and take it worldwide.

 MM: How do you feel like MICA has impacted just the neighborhood where the school sits?

 SH: Really good question. MICA is a small, small college. We have  2100 degree students with another maybe 5,000 or so continuing education and community-based students ... so we have to be mindful as to how do we make a difference, with very serious consideration of means and also our core expertise as an art and design college. But we are a business operation of some scale. So, with that in mind, I would say MICA actually has outsized influence and impact in our neighborhood and also in the city.

 To give you examples to answer your question more directly, within the Bolton Hill and Station North area, around MICA’s campus, our campus safety office has been able to work with our neighbors in a way that we actually have reduced our crime rate in the neighborhood by about half of between 2015 and 2019 as the city's crime rate actually has risen. We've done it in a way that's very friendly, that's very welcomed by our neighbors, by our students. So that's one way that people just don't normally think about, how an art school has actually had an impact on safety. But we do.

 Another example is BCAN, which we talked about before. As we are mindful about making sure that our graduates have the biggest options and most opportunities in school and when they graduate, we are also mindful to make sure we are not inadvertently structuring a kind of privilege pathway to prosperity. That we share and create some equitable access and pathways for anyone in the city who call themselves artists, who want to participate in the creative economy, to be able to receive free entrepreneurial support. Then we are both supporting our students and faculty, but we are also extending that that kind of support to anyone in the city as well. I think it's those kind of activities that make MICA a trusted partner. It’s that kind of mindful exchange and equitable access.

 MM: You mentioned equity. It was about a year or more ago that you put out a really strong statement about the history of MICA and some of the more racist things that had happened at the College. Why was it so important to make that statement?

 SH: That statement was issued on February 21, 2019, and it was a date with some historical significance. It was the right time for MICA to make a statement, but we were looking for the right opportunity. And a very powerful student exhibition that called attention to MICA’s racist past was happening at that time. I consulted with our Board of Trustees and senior team, and said, ‘This is the right time to do this.’ So we issued a statement. A little bit of background: today's MICA has fully embraced diversity, equity, inclusion, and globalization, what we call DEIG. We see diversity as a fundamental strength of the College and the transformative pathway for us. But many institutions in this country and in Baltimore have very long histories, and MICA has very long history. It was found in 1826. We’ll be celebrating our 200th birthday in 2026. But we had racism in our past ... there was actually a 59-year color line admissions policy that lasted until 1954 that excluded talented artists for no other reason than the color of their skin. And so a current student, Deyane Moses, who is a terrific artist and journalist, created an exhibition in spring 2019—around the time MICA’s apology came out—that looked into that that history. In collaboration with Deyane, we issued that statement. She staged a demonstration, and during the demonstration, the College  issued that declaration of apology. Everything we do, we try to do it collaboratively. We respected her as an artist and as an activist, and she respected the partnership with the school as a way to make the declaration as powerful as possible.

The reception actually was surprisingly positive, given that it was about an apology. People on campus, especially members of color, were very touched by and really appreciated institutional acknowledgement of that past. And surprisingly enough, not a lot of cultural institutions or art schools have actually made that declaration, so we also received a fair amount of acknowledgment from our peer institutions.

 But as I mentioned, at the time of the declaration, an apology was only an apology, a statement. So what made it meaningful is that MICA has pledged, going forward, to continue to ensure that the DEIG journey is as genuine and as impactful as possible. That really is the substance of the apology. It’s like we looked back at our past, we know who we are today, and we will all work together towards a better future.

MM: Have there been any other institutions or art schools that have since done it?

SH: Not that I'm aware of, but I'm sure there are one or two has done it. But we did generate a fair amount of media attention around that at that time, because it's one of their rare instances where it happened.

MM: I want to get back to talking about Baltimore a little. because you did live in DC for a time. So I’m interested in what you thought of Baltimore when you lived in DC, and how that has changed.

 SH: I would say that no one really can understand Baltimore without being in Baltimore. When I was in DC, I actually did site visits for a very different foundations or the Maryland State Arts Council, and I came to Baltimore and number of times to visit nonprofits. I was very impressed by the vibrancy about the arts in Baltimore, the spirit of innovation in terms of nonprofits practice in Baltimore. But to be truthful, that was some years ago. Living in DC, I saw Baltimore as an outpost of DC. When I came to settle in Baltimore in 2014, I found out it's nowhere close to that. Baltimore is really a wonderful place in this own right. And it has this really authentic, gritty spirit, you know. It has problems, but it also has really fantastic neighborhoods and people, and a lot of strengths that it’s not easy for people to know. I was in Los Angeles for 14 years before returning to the East Coast. It's  that kind of city too. If you look from the outside, Los Angeles is a crazy city with a lot of problems, but once you live there, you know how wonderful it can be. It's the same thing. You have to be in Baltimore to fully appreciate Baltimore.

 MM: Is there something about the art scene in Baltimore? Like I just feel like arts are thriving so much in the city, and you see it in every corner of the city—gorgeous murals that pop up out of nowhere it seems.

 SH: I think Baltimore is the one of the most vibrant arts scenes in the country and in the world, and I think people who are here really appreciate it. But it is almost an underground asset. It’s not yet part of the city's urban development strategy. It’s not yet something people have realized we have to really invest in to make Baltimore a mecca of creativity and artistic innovation that can actually propel other kind of innovation. That's one thing that MICA and I are trying to do here is to lift up the understanding and the profile of the arts, and to create a network of partnerships to help make Baltimore a mecca for artistic creativity and innovation, where arts can drive other innovation.

 MM: I want to talk a little bit about city leadership. We are going to go into a mayor's race in 2020. What kind of promises are you hoping to see from leadership in Baltimore as it relates to the arts community?

 SH: I hope that the new leadership would be able to imagine a compelling and inclusive vision of the city that definitely provide opportunities to the haves and have nots, but also considers the assets both invisible and visible right now. And certainly the arts is a very powerful and semi-visible asset of the city. I hope that any new leadership coming in would recognize that we should leverage and support the arts for the wellness of the city. Both Mayor Young and former Mayor Pugh have been supportive of BCAN. And the BMA has a very bold agenda as well for the arts, and so does the Walters and other big institutions and small grassroots nonprofits within the arts. I hope that the city can work with us in moving that agenda forward.

MM: When we talk about the mission of MICA and thriving with Baltimore, I think one of the key things that I've seen you guys do is really interesting outreach that's really embedded in different communities, like the MICA Community Arts Building. Talk to me a little bit about that and why it was so important to have students in that community working with the community. 

SH:  It's funny, because I think this is how education has evolved over time, too. I would say 15 years ago, the concept of a MICA bubble was actually a positive thing on campus. You could actually go out into the city and come back, and it was safe around here. And now, if you say ‘MICA bubble,’ it’s a terrible concept. Education really has to be both classroom-based and experiential, and it really has to have a real connection with people built into it as well. We cannot imagine a responsible art and design education nowadays without our students knowing their responsibility vis-à-vis the context in which in which they exist within the city where they live. So it's really important for us to embed this kind of experiential learning for students and not just take advantage of the city but to be genuine in his city. To learn who they are, to learn who are their partners and community members are. MICA today is actually national and international. Eighty percent of our students are from other states and other countries. So many of them actually come to us because we have told the Baltimore story correctly. They have chosen to come to MICA because they have chosen come to Baltimore as well.

We have a lot of both curricular and co-curricular vehicles to connect our students to the city. For example, we have a Center for Creative Citizenship that has grants and internship opportunities for students to work with agencies and nonprofits, or with neighborhoods. We have a program, as you mentioned, the MFA in Community Arts. We have also a Center for Social Design and an MA degree in Social Design that takes design thinking into the city; one of their commitments is to identify social issues and co-design with the communities and the populations ... so that it's not like a top-down, say, ‘Oh I know how to bring solutions to the neighborhood,’ but to go in the neighborhood and to identify the issues together and then actually co-design solutions together.

 MM: Well, it feels like that's the only thing that will ever work, right? If you tell people how to do something, it doesn't work. You have to collaborate.

SH: We know that, but the machines and the systems that are in place don’t know that yet at this time.  

InJuly 2019, which is very recent, there was a wonderful new national report that was commissioned by the Kresge Foundation and issued by the Initiative for Competitive Inner Cities, ICIC. It examined arts and culture anchors in urban cities throughout the United States that use art and design and, again, creative placemaking to bring equitable economic and other development to underserved communities. It interviewed and surveyed a lot of organizations, a lot initiatives, and it highlighted four what they called robust practitioners. Only one of them was an art school in higher education. That's MICA.  So I think for a national third party to look at Baltimore and identify MICA’s practice as an example for the nation tells a really great story not just about MICA but about Baltimore too.

MM: How do you feel like other anchor institutions in the city of Baltimore can help support the arts and arts community?

 SH: If we want holistic solutions, we have to look at like all aspects of wellness and all aspects of empowerment and becoming partners. So, for example, the city of Baltimore actually has a group of anchor institutions, core institutions that meet. The group was formed maybe six or seven years ago. We convene from time to time with different mayors; Mayor Young is going to call a group meeting together, I think later next month. The partnership really looks at each other's different assets to see how we can work together. So that would be one way we use our common understanding, figuring out where we can use our different expertise and different perspective and different resources to help the city.

But ultimately, it's not just about the larger institutions working together. We really have to have government, business, and different sectors working together, and I think recognizing that the creative players and organizations like the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance and all its members need to be critical partners in improving the city. One of the issues about tomorrow is that we are pretty fragmented as a as a city. And right now, we have a lot of wonderful networks; they circulate and the intersect from time to time, but there is not yet a mechanism to ensure the kind of true, one-directional kind of teamwork for Baltimore that has the sum be larger than the parts. We have a lot of wonderful parts right now, and the arts can hopefully play a role in  helping to provide that coalition.

 MM: I want to wrap up by looking at how the arts have been sort of traditionally been viewed in America versus the way they're looked at in the rest of the world. In America in elementary schools, they're cutting music classes. They're cutting art classes. Whereas the rest of the world, arts are really viewed as indispensable, as things that are absolutely necessary. Do you feel like there's a shift going on in America where arts are being viewed as more important or do you hope that will happen?

SH: I hope. I don't think there's a shift yet. There was a very interesting study that was done about 15 years ago now that measured public perception and which includes governmental perception, too, and the findings were very illogical. It's that 97 percent or somewhere around there—a vast majority of Americans—consume and enjoy the arts, but only 27 percent would support artists. I think that study was repeated maybe five years ago and it didn't shift that much. That's why I remain hopeful, but I think that we still have a long distance to travel here in this country.

But yes, you're absolutely right. Other countries have ministries of culture ... Singapore, Britain in its better days, have strategies that look at the arts as an economic development vehicle. I hope that one day I think United States can do that. But the state of Maryland has been very supportive of the arts and of art education. So maybe we can start with the state of Maryland, and we can be a leader in that, and then we can provide a national model.

MM: Do you feel like if there was this reverence for the arts in America that so many different things could change with that?

SH: I absolutely agree with that.

MM: Well, we can be the start, right?

SH: Yes, we can be to start.

MM: Sammy Hoi, thank you so much.