As incoming president of Maryland Institute College of Art, Samuel Hoi is succeeding Fred Lazarus IV, who is retiring this spring after nearly 36 years at the helm of an institution that has seen unprecedented growth and prosperity under his direction.
But he's not daunted.
"That is the wonderful luxury of not coming to an institution that needs to be fixed," Hoi said Monday, hours after being named. "I'm actually inheriting a well-run organization that I can actually build on. I don't see anything that needs to be fixed. But I see an opportunity for a continuation."
The 55-year-old Hoi is president of Los Angeles' 1,100-student Otis College of Art & Design. As of July 1, he will replace Lazarus, who saw enrollment more than double — from fewer than 900 students to more than 2,100 — during his tenure. In that time, the size of the campus has increased tenfold and now includes such showpieces as the Brown Center and the Gateway building. Eighteen graduate and undergraduate programs and three research centers have been created. The school's endowment has increased by more than 25 times, to $72 million.
At a time when traditional arts colleges are facing questions about their relevance, about whether they really prepare students for the 21st-century workplace, Hoi said, MICA's leaders aren't about to become complacent. And that appealed to him, enough that when he was approached about applying for the MICA position, he decided — for the first time since he arrived at Otis in 2000, he said — to test some new waters.
"I found an incredible amount of openness and anticipation for smart evolution going forward," said Hoi, "and even a sort of welcome for revolutionary ideas. MICA has always prided itself on being on the cutting edge."
In Hoi, MICA is getting "a visionary leader who is energetic, brilliant and forward-thinking," said Kerry Walk, provost at Otis. And, she said, Hoi understands the value of working closely with the surrounding community — a trait he seems to share with Lazarus, who has been roundly praised for acting on the notion that a vibrant, compelling Baltimore goes hand-in-hand with a thriving MICA.
"He really believes in having community impact," Walk said. "He believes that the arts can revitalize communities. At Otis, he has used the arts to build a coalition across community organizations, governmental agencies and industry partners. I think he sees an opportunity to have an impact on MICA, as well as on Baltimore. He sees those two things as intertwined."
Hoi's challenges will extend beyond MICA's Mount Royal Avenue campus. The 188-year-old school is an arts college in a neighborhood that's still fragile economically but that has become a symbol of Baltimore's potential for rejuvenation.
Under Lazarus' helm, MICA — by far the largest institution in the neighborhood — has been a pioneer in Station North's rebirth. The school has a hand in projects such as the Central Baltimore Partnership, where Lazarus currently is chairman of the board, and the Parkway Theatre, which the institution is helping to develop as a live performance complex.
Hoi said that Lazarus' legacy is a large part of what attracted him to his new job. "My whole life has been about this ecosystem of art and design and education and community engagement," he said.
"MICA has been an extremely inspiring model for me. A city institution like MICA needs to be deeply connected into the community — and that means that leaders like myself need to be meaningfully involved with and embedded in community organizations. That's also a great way to learn about the city of Baltimore."
When Hoi was dean of Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran College of Art and Design from 1991 to 2000, he led several community outreach art projects, including a mentorship program that paired talented inner-city youths with professional artists that won an award from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
At Otis, he launched an innovative curriculum in which students use arts and design skills to tackle social issues — which sounds quite similar to MICA's Master of Fine Arts in Curatorial Practice.
Ben Stone, executive director of the Station North Arts District, said he was looking forward to meeting and working with Hoi.
"MICA was involved in Station North in the early days," Stone said. "They're far more involved now, and we're looking forward to continuing that relationship."
Although he has spent little time in Baltimore, even while living just an hour south in Washington, Hoi said he has a good feeling about the city. "In some ways, Baltimore reminds me of Los Angeles basically a couple decades ago, before it became the arts mecca and arts capital it is today," he said, "when it was still under the radar, kind of an artistic incubator for talent and social experiment."
In highlighting Hoi's accomplishments, the board also pointed to the creation of the annual Otis Report on the Creative Economy and enrollment at Otis that grew by up to 34 percent.
Hoi is a native of Hong Kong who moved to the U.S. at 17. After two years in Honolulu, he enrolled in Columbia College in New York, earning a bachelor's degree in French and psychology. He later earned a degree from Columbia Law School but quickly discovered that "my passion was in art" and, in his words, "retired" his law degree. In 1988, he graduated from New York's Parsons The New School of Design with an Associate's in Applied Sciences degree in illustration.
Hoi was chosen from a pool of 35 candidates, said Neil Meyerhoff, president of the school's board of trustees. "He's not a person who's going to make change for the sake of change," Meyerhoff said. "We didn't think we'd find somebody who knew all the answers, but the first step was finding somebody who knew the questions."
More so than the other candidates considered, Meyerhoff said, Hoi took the time to absorb MICA's annual report and its vision of what the school should look like in 2020. "Clearly, he was engaged in the process," Meyerhoff said. "He understood what MICA had accomplished in the past five years, and what its goals were for the next five."
One of Hoi's biggest fans may by Lazarus, who praised the choice of a man he's known for more than 20 years. "There's nobody in the country who I think is more qualified," said Lazarus. "Somebody with his qualifications can take what we've done here and move it to another level."
Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley contributed to this article.
Birthplace: Hong Kong
Residence: Los Angeles
New position: President, Maryland Institute College of Art
Current position: President, Otis College of Art and Design
Education: Bachelor's degree, Columbia College of New York, 1980; law degree, Columbia Law School, New York, 1983; Associate's of Applied Sciences degree from Parsons The New School for Design in 1986.
Awards: In 2006, he was decorated by the French government as an officer of the Ordre des Palmes Academiques. President's Committee on Arts and Humanities, Coming Up Taller Award (with artist Judy Byron), 1999.
Personal: A longtime partner, no children.