Art is our common wealth

Dawn Oxenaar Barrett's Inaugural Address, given on October 18, 2012

Preface | Introduction | Legacy/Trajectory | Common Wealth | Value of Arts Education | Vision | Pledge

I. Preface

I would like to thank all of you for being with us on this auspicious day, one that marks an important milestone in the history of Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

To those who spoke today and those who could not be here, but sent their video greetings. To the honorable Governor Patrick, Mayor Menino, Congressman Capuano, Treasurer Grossman, Representative Sanchez, Councilor Ross, and Commissioner Freeland, we are extremely honored for your recognition today. I am most grateful for your acknowledgment and support. To the Board of Trustees of Massachusetts College of Art and Design; our Foundation Board, Presidents Sloan and O'Neil, Chair Yin, and Chair Villari, thank you for your stewardship, confidence and trust. I would like to acknowledge and thank all of the delegates. Presidents Landsmark, Mohler-Faria, Eisner, and Bratton, thank you for your institutional representation, greetings, and presence.

To Vice Presidents Kelly and Steinberg; Professors Hickey and Schlossberg, Linda Nathan, Bonnie O'Connor, Anne Hawley, Jessica Tenczar, Elisa Hamilton, Lewis Morris, Christina Kolozsvary, Nida Suhail; the MassArt Choir and the Spiritual Ensemble of the Boston Arts Academy, I thank you for your participation in these ceremonies, which is most deeply appreciated. I thank you on behalf of the entire college for your gift of recognition and support.

A special thank you, an enormous thank you, is deserved to the MassArt community: all of the members of the Inauguration working committees ... our wonderful faculty, students, staff, and alumni who make MassArt what it is every day. Your involvement and creative participation in the inaugural events help us celebrate all that has been accomplished, and it demonstrates the spirit of institutional pride that inspires everything we are and will become.

Invited guests, colleagues, fellow presidents and educators, friends, who have traveled from near and far, we are so pleased that you have chosen this inaugural occasion to honor Massachusetts College of Art and Design with your presence. And lastly, to my family and friends: thank you for embracing MassArt in your care for me.

A special greeting to the major constellation in my universe: Ootje, Emily, and Emma Oxenaar: Thank you, guys, for the many sacrifices you have made in this first year-for the self-reliance you had to muster during a period when our lives were transformed, and the otherwise attentive mother and wife who disappeared entirely and was replaced by a crazed individual, trying as hard as possible to learn to become a good president to a highly deserving institution.

The strength of your unconditional love, combined with the joy and wisdom that you provide, including a pointed, but honest, critique-this is what keeps me going. This is what keeps me focused and humble. It bears saying this publicly: I could not do this without relying every day upon your wise counsel, your beauty, your outrageous sense of humor, and your expert makeover and fashion advice.

II. Introduction

I grew up in a college town, nestled inside the five-college area of the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts. Being born and raised in Northampton, I grew up with some idiosyncratic notions of how things work, like the idea that the world was divided into academic rather than geographic territories; and that discipline-defined borders were the site of theoretical and political battles between the Departments of History and Biology, or the Romance Languages. I thought Sunday afternoons were reserved for viewing foreign art films in black and white (which were sometimes disturbing and didn't always have a plot); and that if you stood outside the music building when the practice room windows were open, you would hear the unbelievably beautiful way ascending and descending piano scales sounded when mixed with violin sonatas and singing in German and Italian.

I was certain there could be no higher calling than to be a college professor-one of those disheveled but learned persons who walked on water, across the campus pond, across the campus quad, deep in thought or conversing at unattainable levels of sophistication and wit. The professors of Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and UMass clearly had it figured out, I thought-how to study, teach for a living, and spend a semester or year overseas. These were people conversant in many fields, who spoke more than one language fluently, and had rooms entirely lined with books from floor to ceiling.

It was the college professors in our town who were the advocates of civil liberties and the defenders of civil rights. These articulate, outspoken men and women were willing, able, and unafraid to stand up against injustices of every kind. The ability to speak truth to power was tremendously impressive to a teenager in the late 1960s. It seemed pretty clear to me that the courage to speak up and to speak out took conviction, which somehow resulted from their learning and from their access to a wider, more extensive world of knowledge. These examples of empowerment through education stuck with me.

But headstrong and defiant-I was hell-bent on an impatient path of self-education that was defined only by the notion of learning about art and becoming an artist. One week after my 16th birthday, I left home to conduct my solo, independent 19th-century-style Grand Tour of Europe. I was armed with a Eurail pass, a youth hostel card, five dollars a day, but most importantly a green Guide Michelin.

Nine weeks, nine countries-an adventure of a lifetime! Of course it wasn't the 19th century. I was 100 years late. My canvas rucksack had no place in a Henry James novel, and five dollars a day didn't go that far when split among museum entrance fees, food, and lodging. But the trip was magnificent, a learning experience that ended up being critically self-defining. Somehow, I managed to visit most major museums in Western Europe and saw more decorative art, architecture, and fine art than I had ever dreamed could be made in the course of 3,000 years.  

The other important influence on my life in those impressionable years was my involvement with a community of craftspeople who were centered around a gallery and workshop named the Fauxpas. My family's Victorian house, which had been converted into apartments during the Depression, became the unofficial residence or stopover for many artists and craftspeople in the early 1970s-those who showed at the Bennington Crafts Fair, taught and worked out of the Leverett Craftsmen Guild, wove fabric in the hill towns, and set up letterpress and printmaking shops in the old factories along the Mill River.

Living and working beside people who had studied art (but who chose a creative path in the applied arts and 20th-century craft revival) was formative for me. Working in raku ceramics, making sandals, weaving, making clothing in the midst of artists and craftspeople taught me a couple of important things, for instance: that it was really impossible to truly understand or really want something if you never tried to make it yourself. Appreciation was possible, but not understanding. Another lesson was that some things can only be learned by the combination of:

  1. watching how it is done; followed by
  2. actually doing it yourself; then
  3. watching how it is done skillfully and well; and
  4. trying to do that yourself, in the only way you can: your own way.

Using this formula, repeated about 1,000 times-one might learn how to make something of beauty, meaning, and craftsmanship.

Thus began my early ideas about the necessity of project-based, hands-on, iterative learning and a creative making-process based on conceptual intention and a deep understanding of technologies and materials.

In 1974, the year following my father's death, I resolved to stay close to home and enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The summer before my freshman year, having completed Jack Kerouac's On the Road, I did what I thought every self-respecting aspiring writer or artist from New England must do: I set forth to the great American West and hitchhiked across the continental United States to California up the Pacific Coast Highway and east again through Big Sky Country.

It was the great American cross-country adventure, conversing with kind drivers who transported me across this vast, magnificent continent in my non-museum effort to understand American culture. I asked the people about their work, their family, their origins, their beliefs, and what mattered to them. I learned more than I could have from any book on American history. For instance, I learned that I was from 'back east,' but that New England wasn't the model for American culture writ large, and that the rest of the country certainly did not follow the norms of northeastern college and university towns.      

Returning for my undergraduate study at UMass Amherst with some of the best art historians of the time, and taking my studio art courses at Smith, I worked weekends and nights at Smith College's magnificent Art Library.

I didn't really want to graduate in four years. I would have preferred to be a student forever, but I had to earn a living. So I did the next best thing: I moved down south to another college town, and I got a job as a serials cataloger at the library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a staff position that allowed me to continue my studio art education in painting and printmaking. When I began my professional practice as a studio artist (supplemented with the requisite waitressing job), things were a bit tough. I lived in a swamp for a while and also in a mobile home for a few years-but this one had 'cathedral ceilings,' so that was a blessing.

Over time, working with graphic design clients and teaching in community art programs and in public schools in Durham helped support my studio and design practice. But I knew I needed more, and before long I was back as a full-time graduate student at another public institution of higher education, North Carolina State School of Design, with everything still to learn about communication and graphic design.

Remarkable as it may seem, I met my life partner Ootje Oxenaar because of the remarkable drawings in his journal. I had never seen drawings of that depth or skill in any living artist. I knew from the poetry and mastery of this visual language, that this was someone who shared my world. The simple differences of our nationality, language, and a generation gap of 26 years paled in comparison to this stronger artistic connection and sensibility.

A design teacher since his graduation from the Royal Hague Academy, and a professor at the Technical University of Delft-here was a man who had designed the world's most beautiful and influential paper currency in the world, the Dutch Guilder; was twice knighted by Queen Beatrix; had been the commissioner of a major part of the country's public art and design commissions in the previous 20 years; and successfully negotiated the cultural and political straits of a highly sophisticated design culture of the Netherlands.

Ootje Oxenaar, with an unpronounceable first and last name, this was someone with whom I could love, work, and learn from-forever. Mijn lieve schat ik moet je hartelijk bedanken voor alles wat ik van jouw heb geleerd en bovendien mijn grote pleizier met onze prachtige, twee lieve dochters: Emma en Emily. 

Having been either a student or a teacher for so many years-sometimes simultaneously-gave me an appreciation for the interdependence of teaching and learning and informed a deeply held conviction that 'we are all learners.'

In 32 years of teaching, I have consistently found that those who seek a lifetime of active learning are the ones who best understand, are best served, and are the very best in serving the true mission of educational institutions. This is what I mean when I say that educational institutions should first and foremost be 'institutions of learning' or 'learning institutions' for the entire community.

III.  Legacy/Trajectory

We have a T-shirt for graduating students that reads: "MassArt Made Me Fearless." While I didn't have the good fortune to graduate from the College, I have become a student for the last year. So I can honestly say: MassArt has made me fearless!

From the moment that I threw my hat in the ring, I had to become fearless. Those of you who have worked with President Katherine Sloan, know what I mean. She isn't an easy act to follow. It took courage! Accomplished and visionary, Dr. Sloan was beloved in her role as president at MassArt and was admired for her integrity, leadership, and the depth of her social and civic conscience.

What great fortune for this College to have had the visionary leadership of Bill O'Neil and Kay Sloan. In the course of two remarkable presidencies, the Massachusetts School of Art on Brookline Avenue (with 1,100 students) has been transformed to Massachusetts College of Art and Design on Huntington, Avenue of the Arts, with an enrollment of nearly 2,000 and one million square feet of institutional facilities, including three residence halls. What remarkable achievements in a period not always supportive of public arts education.

But to continue that legacy and complete this ambitious trajectory, we will need to rely upon collective fearlessness as I commit a pledge today to sustain and advance the successes of MassArt's remarkable 139-year history.

MassArt is student centered and education focused. Our priority is learning, with pedagogy that welcomes many kinds of learners, and supports diverse pathways to and through a professional arts education. What better example of MassArt's exuberance and artistic excellence than the Inaugural Pageant.

IV.  Common Wealth

What a historic moment for MassArt! The beauty and inspiring talent seen in the Pageant not only shows the tremendous skill and creativity housed at MassArt-it mirrors what we do as our calling and profession. It shows the way that artists have something to say, and use their craftsmanship and creative persistence to take it to the streets, literally. This fabulous performance shows how we think about art as something that belongs in the public sphere and which must be open and shared.

What a brilliant presentation of MassArt and our community neighbors. What a salute to MassArt's legacy as a place not only for exhibiting great art, but also for 'art in the making.' The inventiveness shown is a public expression of enormous institutional pride. It is an honor to this inauguration and to all who have supported it.

Historically, the pageant revives a MassArt tradition that has occurred at pivotal moments in time: in 1913, 1929, and during the 1980s move from Longwood to Huntington. Pageant preparations have been remarkable. In the course of the last four months, there have been multiple art-making sessions with students, staff, faculty, and the community. There has been a 14-foot mastodon slowly taking shape in the welding shop. Led with the inspiring direction of Vice President Maureen Keefe, the pageant committee (and all of the incredibly hard-working inauguration committees and their directors) worked in a cross-disciplinary, collaborative effort that included students, faculty, and staff working in unbelievable camaraderie and institutional spirit.

I want to thank all of the committees and every individual from the faculty, staff, students, and alumni to all the marchers, musicians, costumed performers, and community participants for giving the gift of their creative vision, which came together today to celebrate an event that truly embodies MassArt's way of working-MassArt's way of pragmatically making magical things happen. Please join me in saluting their brilliant contribution to MassArt's legacy.

Such generosity of spirit: that is the hallmark of MassArt-a certain appetite for excellence and exuberance, an undefeatable can-do optimism. Generosity of spirit is our renewable resource. It is the fuel that supports the minds and hearts behind our mission. Art making and art sharing in the public sphere belongs and deserves to be counted as a vital part of our creative economy, our creative commons. It is the embodiment of our common wealth.

Spirit is intangible. You can feel it, but it is impossible to quantify or capture. If it could be bottled, it would be priceless. Spirit, like education, is a form of empowerment. You cannot simply lift the lid and pour it in.

One is imbued with spirit. One must absorb education. Neither spirit nor education can be taken for granted. They must be nurtured and supported. They have to be accessible and sustainable.

How, as an institution for public higher education, can we claim a right for an accessible, affordable arts education at a time when funding for education is diminishing and when culture and the arts are devalued or rationed during times of economic stress?

You can't take culture out of the notion of society or the economy. Culture is not the icing on the cake-it is the rising agent of the cake itself.

Culture is about the social condition. It is what defines civilized life. Just as there is no water without oxygen in H2O-there is no society without culture. It is the basis of life. The question is: How do we protect, nurture, and grow that culture, if we do not provide the basis through knowledge, skills, and education?  

V.  Value of Arts Education

Education is the best field in the world. Those of us privileged to work in education know there is no higher calling than having responsibility for human development and transformative growth. Education is the 'green' source of the knowledge economy. Capacity building and human development-these create and rejuvenate resources.

Those of us in arts education often have to explain what we teach and why it is important. Imagination, invention, and problem solving are as fundamental to science as they are to the arts. Creative strategies like envisioning, ideation, and scenario building (now called 'design thinking') are increasingly taught in MBA programs. Those strategies are the core of what we teach at MassArt every day. These capacities are a great example of how education in the arts is linked to economic innovation. It is precisely through the development of skills in visualization, modeling, and systems thinking that new paradigms, possibilities, and products are envisioned and created, distributed or sold.

This is an important idea, because if you are looking only at the STEM fields (as so many educators are encouraged to do these days), it is easy to miss the inherent connection between arts and innovation.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-that's a fine formulation, but it's an incomplete equation. We need to add the arts. STEM needs to become STEAM.

And this isn't even a new idea. In the 19th century, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts encouraged the development of these visual skills through the passage of the 1870 Drawing Act, making drawing a required subject in all Massachusetts public schools. There were good, practical reasons to do this in the 19th century. In a period of rapid technological change, drawing was seen as an essential competency. But the remarkable thing was that the 1870 Act didn't just encourage teaching industrial drawing, but visual literacy in all its forms, from mechanical drawing to fine art. Massachusetts became the only state to create a self-standing post-secondary school for teaching art and art education-MassArt!

Education in the visual arts is the generator of trained imagination and invention, and a primary source for innovation capacity. These skills, so necessary for the 21st-century economy, have always been at the core of a creative arts economy.

Those 19th-century legislators had an understanding of 'an educated citizenry' in which visual arts skills were a vital component. Today, as we hear the call for creative thinking, problem solving, and the capacity to visualize, I would argue that those skills are needed more than ever. These visual competencies and creative abilities are vitally needed for the 21st-century innovation economy.

Art and design know-how affects every object you touch and everything you see in the course of a day: your alarm clock, toothbrush, and suit and shoes, your smart phone and wristwatch, the newspaper, the postage stamp, the 10 software programs you use before midday, the sculpture in the park, the painting on the wall, the building you live or work within, the drawing that informs, the diagram that explains, the sign that directs or warns, the photograph or film that makes you laugh or cry.

Behind all of these creations, whether practical or inspirational, are people who have learned art and design, and whose imagination and ability to execute their conceptual ideas both enrich the world around us and, in a very real sense, help to make it work. Without a continuous history of institutions able to educate designers and artists, how would we now enjoy the great architecture of Boston, the treasures of painting, printmaking, photography, and other work of fine arts that add purpose, inspiration, and meaning to our lives?  

VI.  Vision

To address the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, I put forth the following strategic areas for MassArt's future.

  1. Access: Enrollment Pathways to Success
  2. Academic Excellence and Accountability
  3. Recognition: Raising MassArt's National and International Reputation
  4. Partnerships: Strategic Alliances and Engagement

1. Access: Enrollment Pathways to Success

Our commitment to access is based upon a long-standing practice of providing affordable excellence in a visual arts education to aspiring artists, designers, and art educators from all socioeconomic backgrounds. If you have the talent and drive, there should be no barriers to your success at MassArt.

Our commitment to inclusive access cannot be geared exclusively to admissions. We need to think of 'pathways instead of pipelines,' for there must be more than one way, more than one path to our doors. We must ensure access, but also ensure student success, graduation, and professional employment.

To this end, we have begun a revised enrollment strategy that looks at an expanded period of time for students before, during, and after their period of study. This enrollment strategy, called Access to Success, will concentrate on the whole person, throughout all three periods of time. Having an 8-to-10-year framework for student success is a new paradigm for enrollment management and requires a shift of practice and organizational design. But this comprehensive, extended view fits MassArt's inclusive, student-centered approach to a holistic, professional education.  

2. Academic Excellence and Accountability 

In the last few years, higher education has received increasing scrutiny from both public and private authorities. The requirement to be accountable and support the value proposition of tuition costs has never been greater. There are some who claim that institutions of higher education are averse to accountability. I don't believe this is accurate. As a member of the Massachusetts University System, MassArt has a proven track record of measurable achievement and accountability through academic excellence.

Assess, measure, and report: This has been our habit for decades. This practice was codified in the creation of MassArt's unique Partnership Agreement with the Commonwealth in 2003, and is detailed in performance reports published each year. The Vision Project Report of the Department of Education shows a 52 percent average graduation rate for our sector. Nationally, the highest graduation rate for the same sector is 61 percent. MassArt's graduation rate consistently exceeds this, at 64 percent. This graduation success could not have been achieved without a student-centered approach or the expert dedication of our outstanding faculty and staff.

This is something to be proud of, but it does not signify a stopping place in our efforts to provide for our students and serve our education mission. Our commitment is to advance academic excellence, with no compromise to student success or inclusive access.

3. Recognition: Raising MassArt's National and International Reputation

We must assure that MassArt not only is an institution of excellence, but also is widely known and understood to be so. This requires a commitment to raising our national and international visibility and recognition. Our value proposition as one of the most affordable, accessible, and outstanding art institutions for BFA and MFA degrees cannot remain one of the world's best-kept secrets. We need to work together to ensure our national and international reputation equals the quality of our programs and accurately reflects the true excellence of our faculty and the outstanding pride that graduates have in the quality of their education at MassArt.

4. Partnerships: Strategic Alliances and Synergistic Engagement

In a knowledge economy, innovation, collaboration, and creativity are three spokes of the same wheel. Together, they help drive economic development.

No institution can thrive without a supportive context or a healthy collaborative environment. MassArt enjoys a unique history of forging productive partnerships and civic and community associations with the Colleges of the Fenway, ProArts Consortium, Fenway Alliance, and-if you can follow the acronyms-DIGMA, MASCO, NASAD, NAAB, and AICAD. MassArt is an engaged partner in a dynamic network that includes public, private, non-profit, city, state, national, and international associations from the neighborhoods of Mission Hill, the Longwood Medical area, and the Fenway Cultural District to our national and international alliances in art education and arts institutions.

To strengthen meaningful engagement with our partners, we will coordinate a cohesive strategic approach that fosters institutionally organized academic and professional opportunities, like exchange programs, internships, and community learning, in working collaboration with our diverse local and global partners.

Now that I've talked about our focus for the future ...

  1. Access: Enrollment Pathways to Success
  2. Academic Excellence and Accountability
  3. Recognition: Raising MassArt's National and International Reputation
  4. Partnerships: Strategic Alliances and Engagement


How do we get there? By recognizing that ...

  1. Professional education is an education for life.
  2. Knowledge is power. Know-how is the key that unlocks that power.
  3. Learning is the medium through which know-how and knowledge become transformational.

As a learning commons, MassArt is indeed a 'community of learning' and a learning institution.

VII. Pledge

Today, I renew a promise to the MassArt Community and pledge the following:

  • to support and further the mission of Massachusetts College of Art and Design, maintaining the educational integrity and purpose of this unique and spirited institution.
  • to exercise good judgment and stewardship on behalf of MassArt for a long and sustainable future.
  • to lead the effort in advancing our reputation for authenticity, quality, and fearless achievement-affected daily in our classrooms, studios, galleries, and shops-and to increase our recognition for artistic excellence among our local and international communities.
  • to advance professional opportunity and ensure student success by continuing MassArt's commitment to broad accessibility and multiple pathways to the finest academic and co-curricular education in art and design.
  • to steward and protect the legacy of Massachusetts College of Art and Design for intrepid innovation and ingenuity.
  • to work collaboratively with all members of the community, relying upon the creative generosity, collective intelligence, and expertise of our most distinguished faculty and staff and their respective union associations. And lastly:
  • to honor the trust extended by the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Governor Patrick, the Legislature, and the Board of Higher Education, as well as our governing Board of Trustees, in fulfillment of our mission to create the best-educated citizenry and, in the case of MassArt, to do so with an obligation to advance professional education, academic achievement, and creative know-how in art and design.

During my term as president, I will need to ask for your individual and collective help.  I pledge to make a transformative difference in the lives of our students, so that they can make a difference in the community, the culture, the creative economy-and the society at large.

This will require an 'all hands on deck' commitment. I cannot do it alone.

I hope that I can call upon each of you to continue your support, confidence, and trust in MassArt. Together, we have a collective responsibility to advance creative know-how and artistic excellence for the future well-being of our citizenry... in a sphere that knows no borders: our common wealth and our collective good.