On Monday, February 10, MICA made an historic announcement: Samuel Hoi will succeed MICA’s longtime president, Fred Lazarus, who has held the position for thirty-six years. Lazarus has been largely credited for the college’s transformation from a small regional school to a world-class institution. MICA’s identity and success have been directly tied to Fred Lazarus’ persona, and the two have nearly become synonymous. When the face of a college leaves, it’s only natural to worry about an identity crisis.
The announcement of Samuel Hoi as MICA’s next president suggests MICA’s Presidential Search Committee has found an individual with the skills, personality, and the vision to step into large shoes. Originally from Hong Kong, Hoi, who likes to be called Sammy, possesses a wealth of college administration experience, after serving as the Dean at the Corcoran in the 1990’s and as President of Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles for the past fourteen years. In addition, Hoi has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and French, a law degree from Columbia University, and a degree in Illustration from Parsons School of Design. His interdisciplinary skills set him apart from most administrators, but beyond that, having an art college president who was himself an artist presents a unique opportunity for an empathy with students and staff that, frankly, a non-artist can’t comprehend.
I interviewed Hoi by telephone on Monday, February 10. We had a difficult time connecting initially because he had been on the phone all day with journalists. Despite the repetition and intensity of his day, Hoi responded to my questions with genuine enthusiasm. It was obvious that he had taken time to research Bmoreart, which was impressive.
Although we didn’t discuss specific issues about his vision for MICA (“It seems presumptuous to arrive with preconceived and generalized ideas, doesn’t it?” he said) this interview will give readers an understanding of Sammy Hoi as a person and provides an introduction to the Baltimore community.
Cara Ober: What made you want to accept this position at MICA?
Sammy Hoi: In my mind, Otis and MICA are sister schools in values and practices. Although it will be very hard to leave Otis and Southern California, I am looking forward tremendously to continuing my life’s work in my move from Otis to MICA. I was specifically attracted to MICA because it is an amazing college with an incredible trajectory – it crossed a sonic barrier from regional art school to one with a national and international stature. This courage and caliber has always kept MICA on my radar. I have known Fred Lazarus for twenty years and always admired his leadership.
When I was approached for the position, I felt compelled to explore it. In the past I had always said no to searches, but MICA was the one that broke me down. It was my first job exploration in my fourteen years at Otis and led to a very happy conclusion now.
I was also attracted to Baltimore. It’s an incredible city, but not as well recognized for its potential as others. Baltimore has always struck me, even when I was in DC, as poised for a tremendous rise. When I came for the interviews, I felt the vitality and a momentum of renaissance here, with people moving back into the city and some exciting developments already in place. I also felt an amazing energy with MICA’s trustees, faculty, staff and students. I want to further MICA’s great work in Baltimore City that Fred and his team have led. MICA and Baltimore can really come together in a very powerful way. So my decision was very specific to MICA and Baltimore. And I believe it is okay for me to leave Otis in good hands; we have some important projects in progress, but there is a great team to continue the work.
CO: Will you live in Baltimore City?
SH: Oh yes. Everywhere I go, I always jump right in and finding a home is a great way to do this. I will be coming to house hunt very soon. I am talking to people about different locations, but I gravitate towards urban living, so I am focusing on a few different neighborhoods. When I came to Otis, I bought a house before I started working, because I didn’t want to be distracted when I started the job. I will try to do the same before I begin at MICA July 1, 2014.
CO: Fred Lazarus has become ubiquitous with a certain fashion statement. He has a bowtie for every occasion and wears them every single day. I read that you have a thing for Cowboy Boots? Is this going to be your “SoCal bowtie” at MICA?
SH: (laughing) I love cowboy boots! You won’t see me with boots on all the time, but I probably wear them eighty percent of the time. I don’t wear them to make a statement, though; I wear them mainly for their comfort. Among cowboy boots, there are a lot of different styles, and mine are not super flamboyant as I have seen some in Nashville. But my boots can add a touch of flair.
CO: What will you miss the most about Los Angeles?
SH: Aside from Otis and my friends, I would say the weather. We have very seductive weather here (laughs). The thing I will miss and not miss most at the same time, I would say, is the geography. I will miss the vastness and unpredictable energy of LA. I will not miss the traffic and the challenge for individual sectors to pull together for a common cause because of the physical spread that can sometimes be compounded by a multitude of agendas.
In my mind, I am making a tradeoff. I am entering into a much more coherent and cohesive community, with more dialogue and common cause in Baltimore. This is my impression at least. I am giving up the chaos of LA to gain coherent partnership. In Baltimore, there seems to be a renaissance energy about the city, the momentum seems to be going forward, and I believe that, together with partners, we can elevate the city even more.
CO: How do the two cities compare in your mind?
SH: Baltimore reminds me of LA a few decades ago, before it became the art capital it is now. Artists could make a decent living, free of market dynamics that are so powerful in New York and Los Angeles. It was a place where artists could be artists, come up with innovative ideas, incubating energy. This is ultimately what lifted LA. This is my view of Baltimore as an outsider.
CO: I am curious about your educational background. I mean, who gets an art degree AFTER a law degree after double-majoring in French and Psychology?
SH: Honestly, it was all a very organic process. When I went to college, it was a very different time. We didn’t think about work or getting jobs. Back then, college was a place to study and develop oneself. It was a place to follow my learning passions. I picked Physiological Psychology because it explored the science of the mind and how the brain is wired to perceive. I have always been interested in people, and how phenomena are created in our minds.
I chose French Literature because I loved the beauty of the language. I grew up as a cultural hybrid in Hong Kong, a British colony at the time. We were neither British nor Chinese, and had to define a place in between. Our identity was a complex cultural construction. As a result, I have always been fascinated by different cultures and languages. I chose my undergraduate majors for love.
The logical end of both majors was a doctoral program, in which I was not interested. What was I going to do? My brother was an attorney and still is. So I thought that, since I had linguistics and analysis, that law seemed like something I would enjoy. I applied to law school and I was smart enough to get in but dumb enough to go. Law is a perfectly fine discipline, just not for me. From day one it was a great intellectual learning exercise, but I never felt a passion about the work, especially compared to my undergraduate studies. Law school made me question what I wanted to do in life. When I finished, I was offered a job and I had an early life crisis. Should I take the job or should I choose instead something that would represent a stronger calling?
I realized art had always been my life and I had always enjoyed dong it. I went to Parsons School of Design in New York and got a degree in Illustration. At Parsons, while a student, I discovered the path of an educator and education administrator. My undergraduate was a pure pursuit of knowledge. Law school was excellent professional training but not fulfilling. After that I was able to find my passion and establish a meaningful work life.
CO: I think it must make you an empathetic art school administrator, having actually been an artist yourself and attended art school.
SH: I profoundly understand why art and design students make their college decisions because I made it myself. Going to art school is a tribal calling! Because of my own experience, I see it as a passionate, courageous choice. I see it as my responsibility to my institution, students, faculty, and community to create the broadest platform possible for what our graduates can do and be.
CO: Plus your background is so multidisciplinary! So many students today have multiple majors and study and work in so many different ways.
SH: Young people and young entrepreneurs are not limited by one pursuit today. They are constantly mixing things up and reinventing themselves. As educators – how do we nurture that mindset and cultivate the tools to enable our students’ success?
CO: Do you think professional development for artists is a responsibility of an arts institution?
SH: Professional development is absolutely important, and we must provide it for students coming to the school. However there can be a philosophical divide among faculty sectors. At any institution of higher education there are contingents. There are those who feel strongly about protecting the purity of the education, that talking about success, money, and jobs, somehow sullies the education. I find it interesting to engage them in conversation, not so much focusing on the material success, but looking for ways to help our students have the most meaningful impact in society.
Part of professional preparation is learning about work but a big part is to learn to interact and build teams with other people. Another part is to prepare them to persist in a life of art and design. We want our students to have the skills, resources, and confidence to have an impact as creative professional and citizens. Our graduates will need to be very savvy about how to create a sustainable livelihood while preserving the freedom to create and make a difference. For students to be able to do this, we need to provide them with professional skills and life strategies.
CO: Thanks so much for talking to Bmoreart today! Congratulations on your new occupation!
SH: Thanks very much.
* Author Cara Ober is the founding editor at Bmoreart
** Image: Still from Vimeo Video City of Angels from Sustainable Media Studio.