You can’t help noticing Mary Schmidt Campbell’s energy and sense of purpose. They’re in her brisk stride; in the quick movement of her eyes as they check out everyone and everything in her orbit; the okay-let’s-get-this-done set of her face.
Observing her from a sofa in the reception area of her New York University offices, I felt my curiosity rising. Sure, I had read her bio: distinguished educator, author and prominent advocate of the arts; born to Elaine and Harvey Schmidt in Philadelphia on Oct. 21, 1947; B.A., Swarthmore College; English lit. teacher, Nkumbi International College, Zambia; M.A. and Ph.D., Syracuse University; executive director, The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1977-1987; Cultural Affairs Commissioner, City of New York, 1987-1991; American Academy of Arts and Sciences inductee; and tons more that you can find on the Web.
Impressive, yes, but so were many other bios I had read.
I soon figured out why I was intrigued by this trim, African-American baby boomer who was dean of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, the world-renowned center of theater and film that had formed many of the country’s top film directors, Broadway producers, actors, writers, theater historians and critics. En route to the deanship, Campbell had made a two-year teaching stop at a little known high school in rural Zambia. That was special in my book, having moved to Africa once myself. I couldn’t wait to ask the dean about her experience.
The Africa experience
How did Campbell end up teaching English literature to southern African refugees in Zambia? “I got married in my junior year in college and a month later my husband was drafted,” she explains. “[He] applied for and received conscientious objector status for Vietnam. We found out that this school in Zambia was approved by the draft board as a place where conscientious objectors could serve.”
That was news to me. I never knew that conscientious objectors still had to serve somewhere.
For many diasporan Blacks, living in Africa causes you to wage war with yourself, to question who you really are, what you stand for and where you truly belong. Victory is coming up with honest answers then acting accordingly. Campbell went through that war in Zambia. “I learned that I was really an American. I felt a strong sense of proprietorship in that I have every right to everything in [America], that I’m not a guest here. Those two years made me feel very fierce about what I thought I was,” she says. And about what she could live with. “I understood that the role of women [in Zambia] was not one where I felt I could realize my full potential. There were constraints at that time,” she says.
When the first of her three sons was born in Zambia, “They embraced him in a way they did not embrace me. They totally absorbed him,” Campbell says. “I could see the beauty of that kind of community. On the other hand, it was not for me.”
Falling in love with art
Campbell returned to the United States, enrolled in Syracuse University’s graduate program in art history and plunged headlong into another love affair, this time with art. “I really found, then, the field I really love,” she says. A year after she graduated, she became a curator of the Everson Museum of Fine Arts in Syracuse and the art editor of The Syracuse New Times. “I fell in love with museums,” she says.
But Campbell’s destiny with the arts was sealed long before Syracuse. Here’s how she describes a childhood passion in an earlier interview: “When I was growing up, admission to movies in my neighborhood cost 10 and 25 cents. You could spend the entire day there, and I very often did. There were some films that I loved to watch over and over again as a child. I remember The Wizard of Oz. It was so magical to me, the moment that Dorothy comes out of the house and it’s black and white, and then she opens the door and it’s Oz. I lived for that moment when she opened the door. Or The King and I. A friend of our family’s took me and her children to see The King and I. When the movie was over, she said, �Mary, it’s time to go.’ I absolutely would not move. So we sat through the whole film a second time. I can remember that kind of magic and being captivated. I can also remember being completely and psychologically engaged.”
The challenge of Harlem
There’s nothing more deflating than putting your passion into what you believe is absolutely wonderful for your community only to be rewarded with a yawn. When Campbell encountered that yawn in her early days as executive director of The Studio Museum in Harlem, she rose to the challenge. “The core mission was to celebrate African-American artists, but there seemed to be very little interest [in] the community. There were the ceremonies that took place, where the community celebrated, [such as] Kwanzaa celebrations, the book fair every year. The rest of the year you could hear a pin drop.”
The goal, then, was to “reconfigure the museum” in order to make the core mission more attractive to the community, the art world and beyond, she says. A multipronged strategy evolved. At the time the museum was housed in a rented loft at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue. “We knew we needed more ground-floor space to be more visible,” Campbell says. A better space was found on 125th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, one of Harlem’s busiest strips.
Something had to be done about the exhibits. “Instead of just putting up an exhibit, we began to create zones of activity around that exhibit film, music, concerts. Something happening around the show created an expectation of excitement,” Campbell says. An artist-in-residence program was established and the museum also began to assemble its own permanent collection. “It has been one of the few places collecting the major works of Africans,” Campbell says.
Thus began the museum’s turnaround. The Studio Museum today, with its unparalleled collection of 19th and 20th century African-American art, 20th century African and Caribbean art and traditional African art and artifacts, plus a host of activities that reach well beyond the local community, is a must-see New York attraction.
Campbell had left her mark. “It was gratifying, because when I came in 1977, [the museum] was a ruin,” she says.
The public policy days
Who, then, could blame Mayor Edward Koch for tapping such a maverick in 1987 to be commissioner of cultural affairs? “When I got into government, it was the height of homelessness. I remember wanting to do art in public schools. [Education] Chancellor Richard Green took my staff and me to one of the hotels for homeless families on 42nd Street and he said, If you can do art for this population, we can talk,'” Campbell recalls. “We did and he gave full support. It was the most remarkable program I had ever seen. We had teenagers working at the Museum of Natural History, in astronomy. The impact on their grades, behavior, capacity to focus in school was tremendous. It really demonstrated to me how really potent the arts are.”
It also was a lesson to the institutions that had balked. “Talent and intelligence are equal opportunity [gifts]. They couldn’t care less whether you’re rich or poor. Our institutions that profess to care about the arts have to find a way to tap into that talent no matter where it resides. It means developing programmatic interventions, such as ways to attract inner-city kids to film,” Campbell says.
Bringing it all together
Tisch is where it all comes together for Campbell the passion for art, the desire to educate, advocacy for the less privileged. “There’s a tremendous amount left to do,” she says. “There’s a huge division that’s sprung between the haves and the have-nots in terms of access to higher education. Prisons are now the most heavily funded. Higher education funding is down. We’ve abandoned education as an engine of social mobility. That will put us as a country at a deep disadvantage.”
She intends to do something about that. “I have access to recruitment policies. One of my chief themes will be what will be our strategy to attach ourselves to the public high schools committed to the arts,” she says.
In Campbell’s office, close to her desk, a hand-painted, floor-length cape is mounted on a stand. A close look at the garment reveals motifs from the paintings of African-American artist Romaire Bearden. As a doctoral candidate, Campbell had written a definitive study on Bearden.
The cape is striking. It’s a gift to Campbell, crafted by design students. Campbell’s eyes sparkle as she explains its significance. “It’s Prospero’s cape, my favorite costume. I like Prospero because he could make things happen,” she says of the protagonist in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.
How apropos, I thought.
By Rosalind McLymont