Samuel Hoi will arrive in Baltimore on July 1 to become the new president of MICA, taking the reins from the much-admired Fred Lazarus. Sammy (as he is known) is coming from Los Angeles, where he has spent 14 years as president of Otis College of Art and Design. In his time there, he has increased enrollment, tripled the endowment, added new buildings to the campus, implemented Otis’s first comprehensive strategic planning and branding efforts, and overseen the creation of distinguished academic programs such as Creative Action: Integrated Learning, Graduate Graphic Design and Graduate Public Practice.
He is particularly known for initiating, in 2007, the annual Otis Report On the Creative Economy for Los Angeles (now for all of California) a never-before-attempted analysis of the contribution of the creative sectors – in financially quantifiable terms — to the economy of Los Angeles (and now California). The Otis report has helped draw attention to powerful role that artists play in society. An active advocate for arts education in general, and particularly in recognizing the role of creative professionals in the American cultural and economic landscape, Hoi has traveled a fascinating path to his new position at MICA.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, where his father founded Cathay Arts, a Chinese furniture and crafts company, Sammy arrived in Honolulu as a teenager. He attended Columbia College in New York, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a double major in French literature and psychology. After getting a law degree from Columbia Law School, he dramatically changed course to pursue a degree in illustration at Parsons School of Design in New York. He started working for Parsons as a student and, after graduation, was sent to Paris, as director of the Parsons campus there. Prior to assuming presidency at Otis in 2000, Hoi was dean of the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington D.C., where he lived for nine years.
We interviewed Mr. Hoi from his home in Los Angeles, where he is wrapping up his term at Otis, and preparing for the move to Baltimore.
Are you looking forward to the move back east?
Very much so. I will miss the eternal sunshine of Southern California, but am very excited about returning to a region I once fondly called home.
Where is your new house in Baltimore? What is it like?
Luck led me to a beautifully designed home in Bolton Hill. It’s a double-width row house of mid-century style. I have an eclectic group of European and Chinese Ming-style furniture, and the American aesthetics of the new space will add to the mix.
Bolton Hill is a great neighborhood. And you’ll be able to walk to work.
Indeed! For my Baltimore home search, I asked my realtor to give priority attention to Bolton Hill, where MICA is located. I like the idea of living in the campus neighborhood as MICA’s new president. It just happened that a perfect home became available there.
You’ve lived all over the world. Where is home for you?
I don’t mean to be glib, but in my case, this is true – home is where I make it. Since I started working, I have lived in New York City, Paris, D.C. and Los Angeles. I immersed myself in each and loved every one of them. I am certain that I’ll love Baltimore as home as well.
Is your family still in Honolulu?
My mother still lives in Honolulu and I also have an older brother and sister-in-law there. Otherwise, my family is spread over the U.S.
Were your parents upset at your last minute career change? I know it was a long time ago…
They were more worried than upset. At first, they did not understand the potential of a practical life in art and design. My personal experience has motivated me to help demonstrate the importance and great possibilities of art and design in society, and to debunk the myth of the starving artist.
Do you identify as an artist yourself?
I wouldn’t dare to do so since I have not practiced art and design for a very long time. I would say that I understand the motivation and the journey of an artist because I was on that path once.
Talk about the Otis Report On the Creative Economy. How has this information been used?
It’s an annual report that puts real numbers to creativity, by compiling and analyzing the financial impact of creative industries and creative professionals in Southern California and the State of California. People pay attention when research shows that one in seven jobs in the Los Angeles region are supported by the creative economy. The report is used by arts advocates to build the case for increased support of arts education and culture, and by jobs and economy advocates to argue for creative workforce development and business incentives for the creative industries. The Otis Report highlights dollars and cents, but the story it tells is the broad and powerful value of artist and creative professions in society.
Can you sum up the difference between the L.A. art scene and the Baltimore art scene?
I don’t know Baltimore well enough yet to contrast its art scene with confidence to that of L.A. My preliminary, outsiders take is that both are vibrant but in different ways. Both cities are friendly and fertile grounds for art and artists, but Baltimore does not have the art market pressure that is now prevalent in L.A. Artists can still get affordable spaces in Baltimore and are left alone to create organically. I think, given the right support and boost, Baltimore can become a great destination for the art and design community and a very special experimentation and production center that can set the pace for market-driven cities like New York City and L.A.
You are known for your leadership in community engagement with the arts, why is this important to you?
Art, design and life are never apart for me, and I try to bridge them in my work. I so fundamentally believe that the arts and creativity are integral forces in social, cultural and economical advancement that engaging various communities through the arts is native to my thinking and action. Otis and MICA are sister schools in that both are deeply committed to community and social engagement.
What are the recent trends in arts education?
Certain aspects of a good arts education are timeless. However, our evolving times and current realities have prompted new education trends and priorities. For example, the acceleration of change requires graduates nowadays to be able to reinvent themselves again and again professionally; the increasing complexity of the workplace and the world calls for ability to work in teams and to be resourceful in accessing expertise that one does not possess; the mounting financial pressure faced by today’s students makes career preparation at school a heightened goal; and the community engagement that has been mentioned above is critically important. A strong arts education today needs to address all these areas.
What is the artists obligation to market him/herself?
I wouldn’t call it an obligation. It’s just that an artist’s chance to succeed with a sustainable professional practice increases exponentially if the artist is willing and ready to deal with the public and that art marketplace. Understanding the distinctiveness of ones own artistic voice and articulate it in contrast to others’ will contribute equally to an artistic practice and to the artists marketing capacity. A great arts education like MICA’s prepares students to do so.
It’s been said that the MFA is the new MBA. Do you believe this is true?
Actually, I believe that the MFA is more important than the MBA. We now live in an age of ideas. With the creative economy being so robust, there is an unprecedented richness in career applications for artists and designers. In addition, creativity has never been more needed to solve the complex issues of the world. The reality is that creative professionals and creative minds will have a vast platform to operate into the foreseeable future. They have great opportunities to invent new roles for creative makers and thinkers in society. They can be positive change agents in communities around the world.
Do you forsee an international branch of MICA?
A top art school nowadays has to be globally connected and positioned. Under Fred Lazarus’s leadership, MICA has already achieved that. To build on MICA’s presence on the world stage, I am not sure if an international branch is the way to go. I foresee an even more strategic network of international relationships and exchanges that will involve MICA programming around the globe. Perhaps, the emphasis is more on brand, value and services that a branch campus.
What’s the best advice you ever got that you followed?
It’s a version of the good quote: “Try and fail, but don’t fail to try.” In creative practices, it’s very much about coming up with ideas, trying interesting things, seeing what sticks, and learning from trying. I strive to remain creative in life and in outlook.
The worst? Did you follow it?
A seasoned president once said that I should consider switching jobs every seven years. I listened politely, but since it did not feel right for me, I ignored the advice. I am very happy that I have followed my own timeline.
What’s the best moment of your day?
Honestly, I don’t have a routine best moment. I am one of those people who just wakes up ready to roll and, all things being neutral, stay in a pretty positive mood until I go to bed. If I have to name a happy daily moment, I would say meal times because I love to eat. I am chagrined that when I am busy, I sometimes forget to eat.
What’s on your bedside table?
Some classical music magazines, which make me spend money because I buy music after reading great reviews: and my iPad, a remarkable time-sucking device. I save money and time if I hit the pillows promptly.
What’s the best movie you’ve seen this year?
I am seriously behind in watching movies this year. Since the start of the year, my time has been consumed by the transition from Otis to MICA. I love movies and fantasize about seeing some movies later this year.
If you could own one iconic piece of art, what would it be? Why?
Picasso’s Guernica comes to mind. It is art that, through an indelible portrayal of the horrific darkness of humanity, inspires us to transcend such darkness through compassion and mindfulness. Our world constantly struggles with that duality within us: being in the presence of this iconic painting increases my personal resolve to help make the world a more harmonious place. That said, even if I could, I wouldn’t want to own it because powerful art like that belongs to everyone.
Tell us about the cowboy boots…
I like them because they provide such great support for my walk. I don’t put them on to make a statement even though I am somewhat identified as a boots wearer. Thank goodness that I don’t have a boots magazine next to my bed; they are so much more expensive than music!