New York-based photographer, curator, and historian Deborah Willis has been announced as the recipient of the $200,000 Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art. The prize is awarded biannually by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Willis, who is known for her work investigating the history of Black photography in the context of gender, is the first historian to receive the honor.
A professor and chair of the department of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Willis is the author of the pathbreaking 2009 volume Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (2009), which assembles two hundred images of notable Black subjects to examine their effect on the modern perceptions and expectations surrounding Black beauty.
“I believe that the arts are essential in changing the world,” said Willis. “By witnessing with reflection, uplifting diverse stories, and elevating multiple narratives of desire, pleasure and loss, I hope that my artistic practice, research and scholarship, teaching and mentoring advance justice and promote hope.”
A former MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow, Willis is a two-time recipient of the NAACP Image Award, which she received in 2014 for the book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, coauthored with Barbara Krauthamer, and in 2015 for the documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a Poeple, which drew from her 2000 volume Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present.
The Don Tyson Prize was inaugurated in 2016 by the family of the late Don Tyson, the former chairman and chief executive of the Arkansas-based food processing company Tyson Foods.
and is available to artists and institutions working in any medium. Previous recipients to date are Houston-based nonprofit Project Row Houses, which supplies housing to single mothers and studios to resident artists; sculptor Vanessa German; and the Archives of American Art.