2011 Opening Meeting

President's Opening Meeting Remarks
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Levitt Auditorium

This summer, on a rainy Sunday morning, I found myself in the Frick Collection in New York. The Frick was presenting an exhibition featuring a single painting: Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert. The painting had recently returned to the Frick following intensive technical analysis at the Met Museum – the goal of which was to better understand Bellini’s technique and process. It’s a stunning painting. St. Francis has just emerged from his hermitage onto a rocky outcrop, illuminated from above, in company with birds and beasts, the Italian countryside stretching out into the background.

The painting is filled with tiny details – a bird sipping from a downspout on the underside of the stone outcropping. A shadowy figure leading a herd of cattle in the distance, pausing to look back at the saint and the viewer.

I have to confess that I didn’t notice all these details myself. The viewer – or this viewer anyway – experiences a plentitude, a too-muchness in the painting. But the specific details are quite difficult to distinguish from a distance.

I learned about these details from the Frick’s excellent multimedia presentation that summarizes the findings of the Met’s research. One finds oneself running back and forth between the media room and the painting confirming in the canvas what you’ve just learned on screen (full disclosure – my use of “canvas” is poetic license; the painting is on board).

What one learns – obvious, probably to every painter and indeed artist who views the show – is that Bellini’s masterpiece is the product of a creative process that evinces both careful planning and respect for tradition and at the same time, a willingness to toss tradition out the window in certain instances; an openness to new technologies and materials applied in both customary and new ways.

In short, the painting is in some sense the evidence and outcome of a spirited internal argument, of a series of choices that were neither random nor inevitable, but deliberate and contingent. It’s quite tempting and perhaps correct – to perceive behind the evidence of this internal argument, a larger purpose, a goal, a desired effect – which we believe must be there because the picture before us is so obviously complete, so apparently coherent and harmonious, so affecting and effective in inducing in the viewer-even one so distant in time and devotional intention as me – a very definitive feeling of awesome peace.

Those of you who have heard these opening meeting remarks before will perhaps guess where I’m headed. You will know my shopworn rhetorical strategies by now: I tell a story that gradually reveals itself as an extended metaphor for some aspect of the University’s activities.

In this case, you’re guessing Bellini’s painting is just about to become a metaphor for institutional change. Characterized by innovation in the context of tradition; demonstrating careful planning and artful improvisation; driven by a common sense of purpose and shared goals.

Very elegant, very tidy and very unfair and misleading. Bellini’s painting is the work of a single-and singular-artistic intelligence.

We are a community, inhabiting and animating an organization. The University is not the product of our work; rather it is a process, or better, a living organism – one with many heads, to  be sure – but an organism nonetheless. It grows and matures. It becomes sick and injured. It needs nourishment – artistic, intellectual, and financial. It makes choices, some good, some bad, and it copes with consequences.

Like Bellini’s painting, it is not inevitable. Unlike his painting, it has no end or finish and no single author or master.

An organized community – like a university or college – is not a work of art. It’s pleasant and perhaps inspiring to think that it is from time to time. And in pondering it’s metaphorical resemblance to a work or art, perhaps we can learn something about community.

But, in the end, we must see an institutional community for what it is: an organized collection of individuals with divergent perspectives on the organization, fulfilling functions that are all essential to the health of the organization but that require very different skills and capacities and overlap and interact often uncomfortably.

Standing back and watching institutional communities from outside, one sometimes wonders how they survive at all – and not just survive but accomplish extraordinary things. Take us: we argue mightily among ourselves about curriculum pedagogy. About management. About communication. We struggle over rights and responsibilities. We act, we fail, we fix, we succeed, we act again. And fail again. We make plans and then revise them. We forget the past in our rush to the future. Or we keep our eyes on the past while the future passes us by.

We’re a community, an institution. We’re messy. We’re no Bellini masterpiece. We’re only process, always. We’re never finished. But we are not aimless, not without purpose. We are not motionless. Rather, we are purposive and propulsive. We are knit together and motivated by a belief that the future of art matters. And that we can shape it.

We all believe this: that we are here to prepare young creative people to become artists. Whether we are teaching them in a studio or classroom or seeing to it that they are fed in our dining hall or delivering technology services to them or their teachers or ensuring that their studios and classrooms are clean and in good repair. As I look back on last year, I see so many examples – too many to count – of our belief in commitment to our students.

I think of Joe Girandola and Jim Savoie and their efforts to bring 12 MFA students to the United Arab Emirates to present their work in the Sharjah Biennial.

I think of Maria DeSantis and Mara Flamm and their development of an English as a second language Institute to better serve our international students.

I think of Donna Faye Burchfield, Maria Urrutia and all the faculty of the School of Dance – Brian, Curt, KB, Peter, Connie, Wayne, Jen, Andrew, Molly and Kim – and all of their lecturers and adjunct colleagues who held that community together after it lost one of its own – and went on to send three students to the Venice Biennale and to present an extraordinary end-of-year concert with the School of Music.

I think of Greg Nayor, Kathleen Embleton, Randy Merced, John Schum, Al Marter, Bob Casey, Ray Chase, Mike Stuhl, Luis Negron, Julius Louis, Ansonia Bussey, Paul Cooper, Dawn Gray and many more who worked across departmental lines to keep our student’s safe and fed throughout the recent hurricane.

I think of Don Miller and all the faculty who participated in the CAMD planning effort, of the many faculty who lavished hours of precious time searching for deans to lead CPA and CAMD.

All of these individuals, all of us: we believe in these students. We believe they matter. We believe their potential to transform themselves, their art forms and professions and their world matters. And so we will fight like hell – sometimes with each other, sometimes over ideas, sometimes with the limitations of bureaucracy or funding. But we will fight for them and for the artistic future they represent.

And it is precisely this shared inclination to fight for possibility and creativity and invention that propels this community forward. Sure, it’s messy and uncertain and sometimes uncomfortable. But it is also inspiring and constructive and, in the end, unstopping and unstoppable.