Martin Scorsese makes appearance at first Tisch Gala since 2019

NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts celebrated Hank Willis Thomas and Deborah Willis at the first post-pandemic edition of its flagship fundraising event.


Jason Alpert-Wisnia

Director Martin Scorsese on the NYU Tisch Gala’s red carpet. (Jason Alpert-Wisnia for WSN)

Clara Spray and Julia Diorio

The Ziegfeld Ballroom was full of stars and smiling faces for this year’s edition of NYU’s Tisch Gala. From Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese to university president Andrew Hamilton, the event brought an esteemed group together to celebrate the arts.

For nearly 50 years, the Tisch School of the Arts has drawn on the artistic and cultural resources of New York and NYU to create a training ground for upcoming artists. The annual gala celebrates alumni and collaborators who are shifting the definition of the arts. This year, mother-and-son duo Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas were commemorated for their extraordinary contributions to the arts.

Deborah Willis wearing a black dress and Hank Willis Thomas wearing a black suit, both standing in front of a backdrop with the N.Y.U. logo and text “TISCH SCHOOL OF THE ARTS.”
Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas are the honorees of this year’s Tisch Gala. (Jason Alpert-Wisnia for WSN)

Deborah Willis is a MacArthur fellow and the chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch; her son, Hank Willis Thomas, a conceptual artist, is a Guggenheim Fellow.

“The excitement is here, it’s really terrific,” Scorsese told WSN. “Enthusiasm has to come from the teacher to the student, and vice versa. It has a very precise way of dealing with every aspect of the creative process. The key thing is always the staff, the instructors, the professors — they are the ones to really instill in the students’ enthusiasm and confidence.”

Deborah Willis is a celebrated photographer whose work reframes dominant cultural narratives about Black bodies and womanhood. She is the recipient of two NAACP Image Awards, and is a leading historian on African American photography. Hank Willis Thomas, is an artist whose work explores themes of identity in media and pop culture. His pieces have been featured in the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Tisch dean Allyson Green called them “some of the most inspiring artists in our country today.”

“Deb Willis is such a pillar and anchor, such a powerful force for the arts within Tisch, for photography and imaging,” Hamilton said. “Her own work on the representation of the black body is just so powerful. I think it’s changed the way of the world, let alone NYU. ”

Deborah Willis said that the joyful community she experienced while growing up in Philadelphia often went unrepresented in the media she consumed. She felt compelled to find that joy and document it.

“I spent a lot of time photographing in my communities, always looking for a different narrative than the projected narrative of the plight of black people,” Deborah Willis said. “I always wanted to show the beauty, the joy, the everyday experiences that showed substantive communities.”

Hank Willis Thomas, who unveiled his statue, “The Embrace,” in Boston last December, said he was proud to have been honored alongside his mother.

“I could not have done anything without my mom,” Thomas said. “I would definitely say my primary creative influence to this day is my mother and the work that she’s done throughout her life.”

Director Michael Mayer wearing a black suit and dotted white shirt, a person wearing a red dress and a person wearing a green dress standing in front of a backdrop with the N.Y.U. logo and the text “TISCH SCHOOL OF THE ARTS.”
Tony award-winning director Michael Mayer and the dean of Tisch School of the Arts Allyson Green. (Jason Alpert-Wisnia for WSN)

The gala serves as a fundraising event for student facilities and schoolwide needs at Tisch. The C-LIVE band from NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music performed for guests as they arrived.

“I think it’s the intersection of all of the different disciplines. New York City can foster this extraordinary community. That’s one thing that’s unparalleled anywhere else in the world really,” Tony-winning director Michael Mayer told WSN. “The diversity of the studies, the diversity of the student body, the faculty, and the city. It’s unbelievably rich.”

Contact Julia Diorio and Clara Spray at [email protected].