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The Art of Modern Education

Success for new MICA president Sammy Hoi means building the city's cultural economy from the ground up.

At Sammy Hoi’s inauguration to become the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) president last fall, city leaders spoke enthusiastically about MICA’s ever-growing presence in Baltimore. MICA has long fit perfectly in its Bolton Hill home, but more recently, the school added its imprint to Station North, helping to spark that neighborhood’s revitalization.

Similarly, MICA extended its reach to East Baltimore, with MICA PLACE, a residential, seminar, studio, and exhibition space planned with community engagement in mind. But more than the school’s broadening physical infrastructure, The Baltimore Museum of Art’s director Doreen Bolger told the Brown Center audience, it’s MICA’s faculty and alumni who are increasingly playing a visible role in the city’s 21st-century evolution. Whether partnering on a project, addressing an important social issue, or serving on a committee, the most active participants “are likely MICA staff, faculty, or graduates.”

“They have their feet, quite literally, on the street,” Bolger said. Then she added with a laugh, “And, I have to say, so are Sammy Hoi’s feet on the street.”

Hoi and Bolger had already met a few times before the inauguration. On one of the first occasions, they spent an evening together wandering around the enormous Copycat building, a converted factory turned artists’ colony, during a gallery night. Another time was at a Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance event in Hampden. On both occasions, among different crowds, she couldn’t believe how many people had already met Hoi. And vice versa. “I was amazed by the number of people he knew, and the number of people who felt free to approach him, the hugs he gave to others,” Bolger recalled. Later, Bolger bumped into Hoi again, at a closing reception for a two-artist show at the “edgy” EMP Collective. “Their space is on the Westside, there’s little parking, it’s cold, and the neighborhood is kind of desolate in the evening. And who walks in as it’s starting but Sammy, by himself.”

One of the EMP artists is a MICA graduate, and the other is currently a teacher there, but no one expected to see the new MICA president—the man tasked with following Fred Lazarus IV’s extraordinary 36-year tenure—at the scruffy, pre-rehab venue.

“There might have been 20-25 people, and he stayed for the whole thing. He was very engaged in the Q&A and discussion, and very encouraging,” says conceptual photographer Nick Clifford Simko, one of the show’s collaborators. “Honestly, I don’t know how he found out about it. We were just thrilled that he came.”

For someone considered one of the country’s most innovative art educators; who has worked in New York; Paris; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles—where he served as president at the Otis College of Art and Design for the past 14 years—the boots-on-the-ground passion for local art is all the more evidence that Hoi is the right person for MICA. And maybe what the Baltimore art and design community needs, too: a leader with a global perspective and reach, who remains a passionate advocate for civic engagement.

“You can feel the excitement of those in the art community around him,” Bolger says.

Hoi chuckles when reminded of his visit to the EMP Collective. He recalls that a colleague at MICA had mentioned the show, and it sounded interesting. But going wasn’t about getting out in public or making a special effort to support MICA faculty or alumni. “I like to look at art, especially contemporary art,” he says. “That’s what I do in my free time, too. The line between my life and work isn’t blurry, it doesn’t exist.” He smiles, moving his hands as if outlining a large box in front of him. “It is all one thing.”

“Baltimore reminds me of L.A. a few decades ago, before it became the art capital it is now.”

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hoi emigrated to Honolulu with his family when he was a teenager. His father’s business, he explains, was in Chinese arts and crafts with a focus on rosewood and teakwood furniture, inspiring an early interest in art. “I did grow up appreciating a sense of design,” he says, adding with a gentle laugh, “but I am also the only one of my siblings who has pursued an artistic vocation.” His real interest in fine art, he says, began when his mother enrolled him in after-school Chinese brush-painting and pencil-drawing classes, which he embraced immediately as a form of self-expression. “I took art classes all through high school, college,
and even law school, without ever realizing it could become a vocation.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in French and psychology from Columbia College, he remained unsure what to do after graduation, ultimately following an older brother into law school. But after passing the bar and receiving a high-paying job offer, he had second thoughts. “Do I really want to end up in a vocation that would be intellectually stimulating and materially rewarding, but did not feel personally fulfilling for me?” he wondered. Facing a kind of quarter-life crisis, he fell back on his deep love of art. “Of course, my parents were concerned,” he says, smiling again, remembering a conversation that has likely been repeated between many MICA students and their parents at one time or another. “They were supportive, but worried whether I’d be able to earn a living and have a good life.” He applied to the Parsons School of Design, however, still without real forethought on a career. Then Parsons offered him an administrative job and an unexpected career in art education was launched. “That part wasn’t planned at all,” he says.

At 55, Hoi remains remarkably boyish, tall and trim, his dark hair not revealing any gray. He has a longtime partner, no children, and has bought a Bolton Hill Victorian that’s a short stroll to work.

He says his favorite walk on campus isn’t to the Buddha garden or another sculpture or gallery space, but just outside his office where he can see the historic main building, the factory-rehabbed Fox Building, and the futuristic Brown Center all at once. “The past, present, and future together,” he says. “It’s seeing things in a series that I really enjoy.”

He’s more informal than his predecessor, asking simply to be called “Sammy.” And he doesn’t usually wear a tie to work, which is not to say he isn’t a stylish dresser, but his signature cowboy boots are a contrast to Lazarus’s famous bow ties. He comes across as exceedingly polite, quick to offer coffee or tea to a guest visiting his office, and he’s a thoughtful listener. At the same time, when he discusses leading MICA and his vision for the future, he’s direct and focused.

He talks a lot about how art education has changed and needs to continue to change. For example, when he was in school at Parsons, learning illustration or painting came with very little context. Being an artist meant being a creative person for oneself and then maybe for a client. It wasn’t until the 1990s, he says, that the belief began to take hold that an arts and design education could offer perspective and problem-solving skills for more complex societal issues. Schools, in turn, started to develop curricula with that function in mind.

He also talks about how much he shares in common with Lazarus.

“Fred and I have known each other for over 20 years and have talked about these issues,” Hoi says. “Otis [Hoi’s former school] and MICA are both members of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, which includes about 45 institutions, and both have been among the most strongly committed to social engagement.”

Both men believe that MICA’s fate and the success of urban art and design institutions in general, are inextricably tied to their embrace of the environment around them. Both have been widely acclaimed for pushing their schools forward by integrating art and design education with community and economic development. Hoi describes the process as a self-perpetuating cycle: build a support infrastructure for artists and designers to land and sustain their practices—whether that’s in the nonprofit or for-profit world—thereby building a creative economy, which, in turn, makes the community a more vital and prosperous place.

“It’s not just Intel or Apple who wants their company laser-focused on design, it’s everyone,” says Neil Meyerhoff, MICA’s board of trustees chair. “The key to all higher-education institutions today is making the school and its programs relevant to the community, and Sammy’s able to show that an art and design education has relevance, more than ever, today.”

Under Lazarus, MICA opened its Graduate Studio Center (since renamed the Fred Lazarus IV Center) in Station North two years ago and launched a partnership with The Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Film Festival to reopen the 100-year-old Parkway Theatre in 2016. Lazarus was also one of the founders of the city’s new public Baltimore Design School for middle and high-school students in nearby Greenmount West, another long-struggling neighborhood that’s slowly being revitalized by an infusion of art and culture-driven development. It’s also worth recalling that Lazarus was important in the start of Artscape, the nation’s largest free arts festival, a significant economic boon each summer, and probably the city’s most inclusive annual event.

“For me, Baltimore is a gem of a city, with true grit, diversity, and huge potential.”

At Otis, Hoi was recognized for launching the annual Otis Report on the Creative Economy, a groundbreaking project on the creative industries’ economic impact in California. He also shepherded in an integrated curriculum that placed art and design education in real-life context. As dean at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., he created the award-winning Visual Arts Community Outreach Program, which served inner-city youth, and grew continuing-education registrations by 50 percent.

Now, after eight months on the job, Hoi says a number of ideas related to maintaining MICA’s momentum are emerging. First, he wants to build upon the school’s community development work and make an economic case for more artist and creative designer-led enterprises. Art and design startups and small-business incubators, such as exist in the tech world, are a possibility, he suggests.

And at MICA, Hoi says, he and the faculty must continue to develop new educational options and match them with real-world creative opportunities. A first-class college curriculum in gaming design, for example, can help sustain and add to the region’s gaming industry. In product design, Hoi adds, there’s an opportunity to combine the region’s bio-medical expertise with MICA’s creative resources in order to develop a globally competitive health-product design and service capital here.

Hoi also believes the city should think more ambitiously about how to retain creative talent. At MICA, 45 percent of graduates stay in Baltimore, which is higher than the 40-percent national average for arts graduates, but Hoi insists the school and city can do better. “For exhibiting artists, we already have a nurturing hub of museums, galleries, and cultural non-profits. We need to build a career support system for the arts in the city.”

The bottom line, Hoi says, is that as much as he came to Baltimore for MICA, he came to MICA for Baltimore.

“For me, Baltimore is a gem of a city, with true grit, diversity, and huge potential. Baltimore is its own city, so I don’t want to compare it too much to another city,” he says. “But Baltimore does remind me of L.A. a few decades ago, before it became the art capital it is now, when it was an under-the-radar, super-incubator of artistic talents and social experiments.”

The cost of living was still reasonable in L.A. then, as it is today in Baltimore, with little of the intense market pressure that has always existed in New
York. Those conditions, he says, fomented an organic mixing of art, technology, and social practices—as intended here in places like the Station North, Highlandtown, and the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower districts. It also helps that Baltimore, given its proximity to New York, Philadelphia, and D.C., doesn’t hurt for outside stimuli.

“Creative minds and practitioners
[in Los Angeles] had the freedom, stimuli, and community to do amazing work that eventually elevated the whole city and its various communities,” Hoi says. “I see the same reality and potential
in Baltimore.”