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Crystal Bridges Awards Fourth Prestigious 2022 Don Tyson Prize to Creative Pioneer Deborah Willis, Ph.D.

The $200,000 cash prize recognizes the celebrated photographer, author and curator’s significant contributions to American art

The 2022 Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art Presented to NYU Professor Deborah Willis, Ph.D., by Alice Walton Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at New York University in New York. (Photo by Diane Bondareff)
The 2022 Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art Presented to NYU Professor Deborah Willis, Ph.D., by Alice Walton Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at New York University in New York. (Photo by Diane Bondareff)

Today, renowned photographer and creative pioneer Deborah Willis, Ph.D., received the 2022 Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art. Awarded biennially by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Don Tyson Prize recognizes outstanding achievement in American art. Dr. Willis, University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, is the fourth recipient of the prize.

As an artist, author and curator, Willis’ art and research has focused on cultural histories envisioning the Black body, women and gender. She is a celebrated photographer, acclaimed historian of photography, MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellow, and recipient of the 2014 NAACP Image Award.

Her latest exhibition, The Black Civil War Soldier, on view at New York University Kimmel Windows Gallery through March 1, 2023, is based on a book of the same name. Portraits of Black soldiers, whether taken in a photographic studio, on a battleground, or on a campground, are connected to the concept of democracy and citizenship expressed by abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass. Through the work, Prof. Willis seeks to engage that sense of activism and highlight the various acts of courage by Black men and women, both bonded and free, during the Civil War, as well as the rewards they received. She also co-curated the current exhibition ‘Free as they want to be:’ Artists Committed to Memory in Cincinnati, Ohio, running Sept. 30, 2022 – March 6, 2023, as part of the 2022 FotoFocus Biennial.

“There is something about looking at images that forces me to question the narratives of the past. I have long been puzzled by the imagery of Black peoples, and I have tried to make sense of the story that has been told,” Willis said.

Featuring a $200,000 cash award, the Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art was established by the Tyson family in honor of the late Don Tyson, former chairman and CEO of Tyson Foods. The biennial prize is awarded to living individuals or institutions in the U.S. working in any medium.

“I am truly honored to be chosen to receive the prestigious Don Tyson Prize. I believe that the arts are essential in changing the world: 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,” Willis said of the honor. “I am grateful that my work, in community with so many important colleagues and friends, is affirmed by, and recognized with this important prize.”

Access and transformation are at the heart of the Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art. It was established in 2012 to identify and recognize individuals or organizations who have changed the way we look at, think about, or experience art. A jury of museum professionals and art historians empaneled by Crystal Bridges recommends an individual or institution for this recognition. Previous Don Tyson Prize recipients have made impacts through innovation, outside-the-box thinking and risk taking. In doing so, they’ve raised awareness, challenged preconceived notions, removed barriers and ultimately increased accessibility to art. The prize is the only one of its kind affiliated with Crystal Bridges.

The Tyson family has a long-standing relationship with Crystal Bridges, including endowing the museum’s Tyson Scholars of American Art program. Tyson Foods Chairman and son of Don Tyson, John H. Tyson is also an original member of the Crystal Bridges board, and his daughter, Olivia Tyson, is involved with work at both Crystal Bridges and its contemporary art space satellite, the Momentary.

“We are all in awe of the accomplishments of Deborah Willis, whose unique perspective and work behind the lens has given us a deeper understanding of the rich cultural histories surrounding the Black body, women and gender,” Olivia Tyson said. “I’m honored to have been involved in the process of selecting Dr. Willis as this year’s recipient of the Don Tyson Prize, strengthening my family’s. commitment to elevating and advancing outstanding achievements in American artists and institutions.”

“Deborah Willis’ contributions have transformed the place of photography in American art, and her work embodies all that the Don Tyson Prize represents,” Tyson Foods Chairman John H. Tyson said. “My father believed in the power of American history and the American spirit, both of which Deb’s art explores and celebrates. The Tyson family is proud to partner with Crystal Bridges on awarding the prize to Dr. Willis.”

The highly anticipated accolade returns after the 2020 prize was granted to Houston-based organization Project Row Houses. Previous recipients include Vanessa German (2018), a citizen artist whose art explores transformation through art and advocacy, and the Archives of American Art (2016), the first awardee of the Don Tyson Prize.

To learn more about the Don Tyson Prize, past winners and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, visit the website.

About Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

The mission of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is to welcome all to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of nature. Since opening in 2011, the museum has welcomed more than 5.6 million visitors, with no cost for admission. Crystal Bridges was founded in 2005 as a non-profit charitable organization by arts patron and philanthropist, Alice Walton. The collection spans five centuries of American masterworks from early American to current day and is enhanced by temporary exhibitions. The museum is nestled on 120 acres of Ozark landscape and was designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie. A rare Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house was preserved and relocated to the museum grounds in 2015. Crystal Bridges offers public programs including lectures, performances, classes, and teacher development opportunities. Some 300,000 school children have participated in the Willard and Pat Walker School Visit program, which provides educational experiences for school groups at no cost to the schools. Additional museum amenities include a restaurant, gift store, library, and five miles of art and walking trails. In February 2020, the museum opened a satellite contemporary art space in downtown Bentonville called the Momentary (507 SE E Street). For more information, visit The museum is located at 600 Museum Way, Bentonville, Arkansas 72712.

About the Tyson Family Foundation

Established in 1970, the Tyson Family Foundation supports efforts for education, health, arts and culture and youth programs as well as a scholarship program for Tyson Foods employees and their families. The foundation has endowed and supported local, regional and national organizations committed to furthering access to knowledge, promoting creativity and supporting communities. The Foundation is currently led by President Olivia Tyson.