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Entertainment & Arts

Bruce W. Ferguson, former Otis College president and SITE Santa Fe founder, dies at 73

Bruce W. Ferguson, photographed in 2018
Bruce W. Ferguson in 2018.
(Kesari Ferguson)

Bruce W. Ferguson, a writer, curator and former president of Otis College of Art and Design, died of cancer Sept. 14 at his home in Los Angeles, his family said. He was 73.

Ferguson was appointed president of Otis in June 2015. One of his legacies at the college is a summer residency program that brings international professional artists and designers to work in Los Angeles for a month.

“Bruce’s presidency contributed to Otis College in a number of important ways and sought to bring more people to Otis opportunities,” read a letter sent from the board of trustees to alumni after Ferguson departed the school in March.

Before coming to Otis, Ferguson was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the American University in Cairo from 2010 to 2013. He was a founding director of Arizona State University’s Future Arts Research program from 2008 to 2010; the program brought artists and researchers together around desert-related issues. Ferguson was dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University from 1999 to 2006, and before that he served as president and executive director of the New York Academy of Art starting in 1996.

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His curiosity, particularly about contemporary art and the nature of exhibition-making, ran deep, his family said.

“Bruce was known for his intellect, his vision and creativity,” his older sister Anne Marie Ferguson said. “And his wonderful sense of humor — he was very witty.”

Bruce Willis Ferguson was born and raised in Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. His father, Elmer Ferguson, was a businessman, and his mother, Vera Ferguson, was a homemaker who went on to become a city councilwoman in Lethbridge.

Ferguson was captivated by art as a child. He was frequently sketching and drawing, his sister recalled, and writing “little plays” with friends.

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Ferguson went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of Saskatchewan and a master’s degree in communications from McGill University in Montreal.

Beyond his work in academia, Ferguson curated more than 35 exhibitions internationally, including shows for institutions and biennials in Sydney, Australia; Venice, Italy; Istanbul, Turkey; and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

He was the founding director and first curator of the nonprofit contemporary art space SITE Sante Fe in New Mexico, which opened in 1995. Throughout his career, he collaborated with notable artists such as Kara Walker, Francis Alys and Eric Fischl, whose first solo exhibition Ferguson curated in the mid-1970s.

“Bruce championed my work very early on and found opportunities for me to push it further out into the larger world,” Fischl told Canadian Art in an homage published last week. “He did this for many artists. It was his gift; a rare gift. He spotted and nurtured nascent talent and brought to their work a layered intelligence rooted in acute observation.”

Ferguson was also a prolific writer. With a Getty senior research fellowship grant, he published the 1996 anthology “Thinking About Exhibitions,” co-edited with Sandy Nairne and Reesa Greenberg. He also penned articles for Artforum, Canadian Art and Art in America, and he authored exhibition catalogs.

“He was a real humanitarian,” his longtime partner, Victoria Sambunaris, said. “For him, it was an international art world. His reach was global.”

Ferguson is survived by Sambunaris; his sister, Anne Marie Ferguson; his daughter, Gretchen Ferguson; and a granddaughter, Kesari Ferguson.


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