mary schmidt campbell - courtesy spelman

THE TENTH PRESIDENT of Spelman College is a prominent New York City arts leader who played a pivotal role in sustaining and advancing the Studio Museum in Harlem when the city was on a downturn.

Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., has been named president-elect of Spelman, the Atlanta college established in 1881 and recognized today as a leader in the education of women of African descent. Dean emerita of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU), Campbell was unanimously selected by the Spelman Board of Trustees after a competitive search that began in September 2014. She will officially assume the presidency on Aug. 1, after current president Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., steps down in July. The announcement was made Saturday, March 28.

“[Campbell] is the right leader at the right time because her dynamic and innovative leadership has been demonstrated at every step along the way in her career,” said Rosalind Brewer, chair of the Spelman Board of Trustees and president and CEO of Sam’s Club in a statement.

Campbell served as dean of the Tisch School of the Arts for more than 20 years. Prior to that she was the city’s cultural affairs commissioner. Appointed by Mayor Edward I. Koch in 1991, she also served as commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins, before joining NYU. Early in her career, Campbell was executive director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem from 1977 to 1987.

Her NYU bio details her accomplishments at the Studio Museum: “Under her leadership the museum was transformed from a rented loft into the country’s first accredited Black fine arts museum with a permanent collection, major publications, exhibition and artists-in-residence programs. She personally curated a number of groundbreaking exhibitions and wrote catalogue essays for world-renowned artists such as Betye Saar, Sam Gilliam, and Melvin Edwards.

Under her leadership the [Studio Museum] was transformed from a rented loft into the country’s first accredited Black fine arts museum with a permanent collection, major publications, exhibition and artists-in-residence programs.

Campbell’s track record at NYU’s Tisch School is just as impressive as her strides at the Studio Museum: “Under her leadership, the school experienced an increase in the minority student population of nearly 200% and faculty diversity increased almost tenfold. During that same period, Tisch experienced dramatic improvements in the average GPA and SAT scores of incoming freshman and in the retention rates of its continuing students. In the process, Tisch became one of the most selective schools at NYU.”

After receiving a B.A. in English literature from Swarthmore College, Campbell earned an M.A. in art history from Syracuse University, where she also completed a Ph.D. in Humanities. She says she attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls, and her three sons graduated from HBCUs. Her oldest son is provost of Morehouse College and his wife is an alum of Spelman. Meanwhile, Campbell’s husband is president emeritus of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Her personal and professional backgrounds are readymade for her new post. But when Campbell retired from Tisch in May 2014, she was determined to concentrate on researching and writing her biography of Romare Bearden.

The opportunity to lead Spelman grew out of a conversation narrowly focused on the school’s arts program. Tatum called in August and asked Campbell if she would visit the campus and speak with the arts faculty in anticipation of a planned renovation of school’s arts facility.

She accepted the invitation and toured the campus, talked with students, and had a lively engagement with the arts faculty.

“I walked around and I said, “Wow. This is an extraordinary campus. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a campus that had this much energy and passion on it,” says Campbell in the Spelman video below. “I filed that away and then I went back to work on my book. And then I got a call from the search committee.”

“I walked around and I said, “Wow. This is an extraordinary campus. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a campus that had this much energy and passion on it. Then I went back to work on my book.”
— Mary Schmidt Campbell

She didn’t anticipate returning to higher education, but eventually found herself “awakened” to the idea and came to feel strongly that she was the “perfect fit” for Spelman at this particular time in its history

“I began to think this might actually be that one rare opportunity that would make me walk away from my retirement and take on a new adventure,” Campbell says.

“I began to think this might actually be that one rare opportunity that would make me walk away from my retirement and take on a new adventure.” — Mary Schmidt Campbell

According to the school’s website, enrollment at Spelman is 2,129. Tuition, including room and board is $37,441 a year. The annual budget is $104.6 million. U.S. News & World Report has ranked Spelman the No. 1 HBCU for eight years in a row.

Campbell says she is “in awe of Spelman” and looking forward to helping to shape the academic careers of the extraordinary women who attend the school.

“When I think about my own experience in higher ed… When I think of the institution building I’ve done in the Harlem community, when I think of the kinds of programs we’ve developed for young people who don’t have the resources that they would need to come to elite places,” she says, “I think the whole combination of that, at this moment, I think perfectly aligns with where Spelman is poised and where Spelman believes it needs to go.”

In the video conversation with Monica Pearson, a retired local TV news anchor, Campbell talks about how she landed in the arts field and one of the bold ideas she has in mind for Spelman.

Although Campbell didn’t realize there was a field called art history, she took a few undergraduate art history courses and found her calling.

“When I went to graduate school, what I discovered is that if you looked at galleries, the museums, the history of art, you couldn’t find women and you couldn’t find black artists,” says Campbell. “I looked around and I knew there were lots and lots of black artists working—the Jacob Lawrences, the Romare Beardens, the Betye Saars and Howardena Pindells. But they were nowhere in museums or in art history. And I said that’s what I want to do. I want to put them into art history.”

“I knew there were lots and lots of black artists working… But they were nowhere in museums or in art history. And I said that’s what I want to do. I want to put them into art history.” — Mary Schmidt Campbell

When asked what kinds of new programs she would like to see at Spelman that are “non-traditional and outside-the-box,” she suggests an academic curriculum that would blend the arts and humanities with STEM disciplines.

“We have an opportunity to create a site on campus where the disciplines from STEM and the disciplines from the arts can enter into conversation with each another and who knows what will come of that,” says Campbell. “It’s an opportunity for innovation, for risk taking, for invention and I would be very excited to put the ‘A’ into STEM and make it STEAM.” CT

TOP IMAGE: Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., president-elect of Spelman Collage | Courtesy Spelman College

BOOKSHELF
Mary Schmidt Campbell is co-editor of “Artistic Citizenship: A Public Voice for the Arts,” and co-author of “Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America,” and “Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden 1940-1987.”

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