A New $1M Scholarship Fund Honors Late Artist Mike Kelley

A coalition of artists influenced by Kelley participated in a fundraising auction to fund the scholarship's endowment.

The late Mike Kelley, renowned for his influential multi-media explorations of memory and transgression, was more than an artist. For two decades, he was also a beloved professor at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California.

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Man sits on couch in book-lined room
Mike Kelley in July of 2011. Ann Johansson/Corbis via Getty Images

Now, twelve years after his passing, the university is introducing a scholarship honoring Kelley. Supported by an endowed fund of $1 million, it will provide financial support to select MFA students through graduation.

A Detroit native, Kelley founded the local rock band Destroy All Monsters before moving to Los Angeles in the 1970s to experiment with mediums like performance, installation, painting, video, sound and sculpture. He rose to widespread acclaim for his unorthodox source materials and avant-garde works, which included sculptures made of stuffed animals and his “Kandor” series that engaged with the fictional city depicted in Superman comic books.

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The art world was flooded with tributes to the artist following his 2012 suicide, with a series of shows, retrospectives and even a Whitney Biennial dedicated to Kelley. One of his final major projects, a moving replica of his childhood home titled Mobile Homestead that the artist hoped would host community services like haircuts and block parties, was later opened by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Despite his fame, Kelley worked as a professor at Pasadena’s ArtCenter from 1986 to 2006. “His information was deeply researched, thorough beyond belief, and expanded my understanding of art making in every possible way—something I appreciate every day as a working artist,” said Pae White, who worked as Kelley’s student assistant at ArtCenter, in a statement. When asked by White whether he needed to take a step back from teaching in light of his demanding career, Kelley responded that “he felt a deep desire and obligation to educate the next generation of artists,” according to ArtCenter.

Birds eye view photograph of group of people standing in university classroom
Mike Kelley, pictured at right in black. ©Steven A. Heller/ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, California

The new endowment was funded by an auction hosted by David Zwirner

Kelley’s students included acclaimed artists Jennifer Steinkamp and Sharon Lockhart. The latter, with several ArtCenter alumni and faculty including Diana Thater, Sterling Ruby, Laura Owens, Shahryar Nashat and Aaron Curry, recently donated artwork to an auction raising funds for the Mike Kelley Endowed Scholarship. Hosted by the David Zwirner Gallery, the sale netted $660,000 to provide the scholarship’s seed funding.

Kelley was involved in philanthropy. In 2007, he established the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts to support multimedia projects via grants. The foundation participated in the ArtCenter scholarship funding efforts with a $100,000 grant and a pledge to match additional contributions to bring the endowment’s total to $1 million. “We were so touched by the creativity and extraordinary commitment of this group of artists that the Foundation wanted to build on this powerful momentum,” said Mary Clare Stevens, the foundation’s executive director, in a statement.

The scholarship, which has since received a subsequent donation of close to $150,000 from several ArtCenter board members, will operate in perpetuity. Omar Ceballos, a painter and sculptor exploring cultural narratives, is its first recipient and is expected to graduate with his MFA next year.

“[Kelley] is remembered as one of the most influential artists of our time, and this scholarship allows us to honor his legacy as an equally influential mentor and teacher,” said Karen Hofmann, ArtCenter’s president, in a statement.

A New $1M Scholarship Fund Honors Late Artist Mike Kelley