I had the privilege of welcoming you all to the Art Department three years ago. I remember being struck by the first couple exhibitions of your cohort and remarking to colleagues that you were clearly a special group. Your collective work represented a significantly broad understanding of the value of art as a social practice, and as a continuation of historical modes of technical production, and also signaled a break with some of the most entrenched art world norms. It was also fearless and felt incredibly vital to me.
Your cohort, more than most, is bound together by crisis. Many of you have suffered difficult losses over the last three years. And we all mourn the passing of Josh McMahon, who I sense is here with us today. The strength of your cohort is that you chose to support each other through loss, through change and through the challenges of co-existing in a rigorous and demanding program.
You persevered and remained committed to your creative life before and during the current crisis and I am convinced that you will persevere beyond it; that you will find ways to bring your creativity to bear no matter what obstacles you might be confronted with.
As Lewis Hyde noted, in The Gift:
A work of art is a gift, not a commodity… Every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how they are to survive … and if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish themselves, spiritually as well as materially…?
What you all have been through and what you are still in the midst of, can break you or bind you together. My observation is that it has galvanized you as a group of individuals who lift each other up even as you are dealing with your own challenges and anxieties about what your lives will become. This is your gift to each other as well as to us, your grateful faculty.
This faculty has great affection for you all, and a palpable bond that has been made even deeper through the last couple months of uncertainty and change. I do believe that if any group of artists can get through this moment and continue to move forward, it is this group. You have supported each other, pushed back at the faculty with hard truths when you needed to and stood up for not only yourselves and each other but for the next generations of MFA students who will come to our department to seek the same supportive and creative space that you did.
Without your advocacy and activism, we may not have found the consensus we needed to become a fully funded graduate program. It was in large part, your passionate appeal and thoughtful presentation to the faculty, that in my opinion, made us truly aware of the enormous importance of finding a way to fund all of our graduate students equally. That will be a big part of your legacy. You all stood up for the next cohort and for all future graduate students after them to make sure they will be treated ethically. I am sure that they will be grateful to you all, as we are grateful to you now.
You are my last graduating class as chair and I will be forever proud of you all and remember how you held fast with dignity and professionalism in a time of crisis. You stood by each other and did not break, you made work that was from the heart, that challenged your peers, yourselves and your teachers and you advocated for what was right, and what was just.
While some of you most certainly did not get the MFA shows you had imagined, your creativity and ingenuity amazed us all. The gifts that you gave us as you took your exhibitions into digital spaces, into life and into your communities, sustained us in a very difficult time. That is what artists can do… give us hope and shatter our expectations of the very nature of art.
For those of us that tend gardens, we look forward to spring as the time to plant and prepare so as to have a good harvest in fall. The academic career reverses that rhythm. You started your MFA journey three years ago, sowing in fall, and now in spring you reap what you have worked for over that time. However, as artists, your garden is perennial.
I am certain your class will all continue to do amazing things with your lives, and I am grateful to you all.