Kurt and I have often talked about what it means to be an artist, what it means to train artists, and what is at stake for the arts in this current moment. He asked me to give the keynote speech at his inauguration and I was humbled and honored to do so.
it was a beautiful ceremony at the historic Cabot Theatre. There were greetings from Governor Charlie Baker, State Senator Joan Lovely, State Representative Jerry Parisella, and Beverly Mayor Michael P. Cahill Speeches of congratulations and encouragement from Montserrat were given by Senior Faculty Member and former Dean Barbara Moody, Ed.D.
I got to share the stage with Kurt and the following luminaries:
F. Javier Cevallos, Ph.D., President, Framingham State University
Kay Sloan, D.A, President Emerita, Massachusetts College of Art and Design
Rose Sauriol, Student, Class of ’21’ Montserrat College of Art
Chelsea Sams, Alumna, ’08, Faculty, Montserrat College of Art
Amy Brown, ’05 Alumna, Montserrat College of Art
The text of my remarks follows. You can watch it at this link (and I come in at about 38:00).
Some thoughts on Kurt Steinberg and the Creative Life
I am honored to be here. Thrilled, actually. As some of you know, I know Kurt-President Steinberg-from another institution. I miss him terribly. I miss that laugh. It was hard for me, personally, that he left but when I found out he was coming here I was thrilled for him. And I am even more thrilled for you. Kurt steered my institution through one of the most difficult and fraught times in its close to 150 year history. He did it while taking flack from many constituencies at the school. He did it when his decisions were not popular and he did it when he had to manage a less than supportive group of colleagues. He stepped in when he was needed, going above and beyond what was required of him. Because of his work, the college started to right itself. And when the college started to right itself, shake off its problems, and begin to move forward again, to my ears, Kurt received the paltriest of thank yous from his naysayers. And it must be said that the groundwork he put in place, the systems he corrected, the projects he fought for and helmed, are still guiding the future of the institution that I love as much as you all love this one. I remain deeply grateful to him.
So like I said, I am very sad that I no longer get to work with him, but you must know how fortunate you are to have him here at Montserrat.
I am an artist and most of the time people do not ask us to talk-especially not in public like this. When Kurt asked to speak on his behalf I did not hesitate. Mostly because I want you to know something about being an artist that Kurt knows as well. And because Kurt knows this, it makes him uniquely qualified to lead an art college in this tense and fraught moment in our nation’s history.
Imagine for a moment that someone you love tells you that they want to become a Certified Financial Planner. They tell you that it is their passion, that they lie awake at night thinking about derivatives and how to maximize value for investors. They tell you that they have known this about themselves since they were a child and that they understand the world through equations and numbers. And because of this, they are going to a school that specializes in numbers, math, finance, accounting, and risk management.
Of course, because you love this person, you are supportive-even though you, like me, know nothing about numbers. You may have no idea what it takes to be a Certified Financial Planner, but they seem committed and happy.
Now, imagine your friend is me. And I tell you that I want to be an artist. That I want to go to art school. That I want to commit my life and my time to the study of art.
How many of you think I have made a risky choice?
When I told my mother-may the she rest in glory-that I wanted to be an artist, she said it was impractical. She asked me how I was going to make a living. She asked me how I was going to feed myself. She said I already had a degree in management why would I not do that. (My Bachelor of Science in Management got me a retail job. That was the only “management” related job I could find.) She asked me why would I do something so risky and irresponsible as become an artist?
I told my mother that I did not want to have a risk-free and responsible life. I wanted to have a creative life. And that meant I had to learn about creativity.
Since that day years ago when I decided to go back to school-to art school-I have had a creative life. And the creative life is different in the look and in the living of it. I lack for nothing. I have work that is fulfilling. I have creative colleagues. I have friends whose lives are built around creative activity. This is the life that the study of art-at a deep level-has given me. It is the kind of life that-in my opinion-only an art school can provide and it is a life that Kurt understands and values.
I knew this was going to be difficult going into it. And I think that everyone going to art school knows that they are going to have to find some way to make a living out of a creative life. For artists, this is not hard. It is harder to figure out the correct proportion of pigment to egg yolk that it is for a creative person to engage in the world of work. Creative people are an asset to any organization smart enough to hire them-and not because the “arts make you better at other subjects.” That is not true-my colleague Dr. Lois Hetland debunked that weird truism with her research years ago. The validity of the arts is not a function of how well they make you do other things. The arts are valid in their own right and they teach us specific skills, inclinations and ways of being in the world. The arts make manifest the importance of having a vision and developing the skills to carry it out.
When I got my MFA, I did not get a job as an artist. I got a job as a Secretary (we call them “admins” now, but I have always thought of myself as a secretary). I got the job because 1) I had a degree and 2) I am artist. In my interview, I told my prospective boss about my experience in learning about creativity, about how it applies to every aspect of our lives, from his Pucci tie to his Montblanc pen, I told him he was surrounded by objects and experiences formed for him by people like me. And that my kind of thinking-as the person who managed his daily life-would be beneficial to his organization. I got the job and a few months in, I heard my boss and his colleagues-all MBAs and finance people-debating about a mission statement. One guy said, “This says ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity.’ Do we need both? Aren’t they the same thing?” His peers all nodded. I poked my head into the conference room and said, “Honesty is a virtue; integrity implies cohesion.” “Who is that guy?” one of the MBAs said. My boss replied, “That’s the artist.”
I loved that job. I worked 4 days a week-10 hours a day and then I had three days off to be in the studio that I could afford because I had a job. That is what the creative life gave me.
I am not unique in this. Every student that goes to art school is trained to think this way and to be this way in the world. So worrying about how artists live in the world without a “practical skill set” is the kind of bias that we need to dismantle about being an artist in the world. To study creativity and to live the creative life it to act on a practical set of skills forged in the studio and the library. This is not play. To live a creative life is to think and, most importantly, to act.
Now, I love money. I love nice things. Having a creative life does not mean scarcity. It does not mean poverty. It does not mean lack. It means work-and artists are no strangers to work. It means finding a way where there is no way. It means making a path for yourself and connecting to the paths of other people like you. It means collaboration. It means solving problems in a new way-sometimes solving them in a way no one has thought of before you did it. A creative life is formed in art school. It teaches you content, context, collaboration, and community.
I tell you all of this because I want you to know that Kurt Steinberg understands the creative life. He knows that creative people have different ideas about success. He knows that creativity leads to different outcomes, different opportunities, and different ways of being in the world. Instead of treating artists like they are irresponsible moonbeams, he knows that they are engaged thinkers. He understands the openness of the creative life and the necessity for flexibility. He knows how insulting it is to an artist to make them think that their skills and education are somehow less than those of our beloved friend who earlier decided to be a Certified Financial Planner.
I cannot stress to you how vital it is at this moment to have leadership of an institution that understands the goals of a creative life. Increasingly at art schools, there are often many pressures for technocratic, “results-based” solutions, metrics, data, and any assortment of corporatist ideas of running educational institutions. “We need more business classes!” (I’m going to give you a free business class right now: Make more money that you spend. OK?) All these things, to my eye, are for one purpose: to make it impossible to justify-financially-an education in the arts. If college is so expensive, then people better be able to get jobs when they get out. This kind of thing saddens me because it means that people are starting to believe that education is simply job training. I think all this kind of talk is unjust. John Dewey was not lying when he said that “Education is not preparation for life; it is life itself.” To think otherwise is to steal people’s education from them in the name of job security. Such thinking is immoral and lethal to creative possibility.
Kurt always bets on the artist. Always. He believes in what we do and how we do it. And he knows that a deep study of creativity-whether it leads to a person becoming an artist or not-alters the circumstances of life.
In this fraught and murderous time in our nation’s history, we need people who can think, who can shape new forms, and who can decipher illusion. We need people who can be critical and compassionate. It is not enough to simply see, we need people with vision. We need thinkers who can make a way out of no way. We need people who understand the power in a point of view, and how power can change by shifting that point of view. I believe these things live in the arts-and that is one of the first reasons artists come under attack during Fascism.
You have a person, Kurt Steinberg, to lead your institution as it continues its vital work to train the creative people of today and beyond. While Kurt knows more about math than I ever will, and more about fiscal policy that I ever could, please know that he also knows deeply about what is at stake in developing a creative life.
You were so wise to choose him as your President.