The Transformative Power of the Arts

Winter Commencement
Assembly Hall
IU Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana
December 20, 2014

The Vital Need for the Arts

Chairwoman Chu, Trustees, Provost Robel, honored guests, colleagues, and members of the Class of 2014:

In 1994, at a time when some members of Congress were calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, one of Dr. Chu’s predecessors as chair, Jane Alexander, convened a national conference in Chicago to examine the state of the arts and the future of the arts in the United States.

In his keynote address, Ernest Boyer, then-president of the Carnegie Foundation, spoke of the importance of the arts in lifelong learning.

“No education is complete without the arts…” Boyer said. “As a public… we are beginning to understand more fully,” he continued, “that if we do not educate our (young people) in the symbol system we call art, we will lose not only our civility, but our humanity as well.”1

Indiana University has long been deeply committed to the arts, not only because they are a vital part of a well-rounded education, but also because the university has long recognized that the quality of our culture and the quality of the arts are deeply and closely interconnected.

Indiana University’s Glorious Tradition in the Arts

Indiana University’s glorious tradition in the arts and humanities is based first and foremost on the eminence of our outstanding scholars. From language and literature, to the fine and performing arts, they have established IU’s programs as among the finest in the world. They have also contributed immeasurably to providing a true liberal education—an education that is both wide-ranging and selectively deep—to generations of IU students, including many of today’s graduates.

IU’s reputation in the arts and humanities is also based on its superb facilities, iconic buildings where, during your time at IU, you have had an unparalleled opportunity to engage with the arts.

Since it opened in 1941, IU’s magnificent Auditorium has hosted countless performances by visiting artists of the highest caliber, as well as lectures by world-renowned artists, writers, and political leaders.

IU’s Musical Arts Center is home annually to more than 1,000 operas, ballets, symphonic concerts, and other musical events, performed by the students and faculty of IU’s peerless Jacobs School of Music.

In the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center—home to a theatre department ranked in the top ten nationally—you have had the opportunity to witness superb performances of contemporary plays as well as classics of world theatre.

IU’s treasured art museum, designed by one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, I.M. Pei, is one of the foremost university art museums in the country, and the Grunwald Gallery of Art presents contemporary works by both professional and student artists.

On the opposite side of the Fine Arts Plaza, IU’s incomparable Lilly Library is also home to many masterpieces, not only among its exceptional holdings of rare books and manuscripts, but also among the collection of magnificent paintings and prints that are part of its holdings.

The IU Cinema, now its fourth year, has very quickly become one of the finest university cinemas in the nation and is home to some of the most innovative programming. This year alone, the Cinema hosted two of the most acclaimed actors of our time, Academy Award-winners Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. Mr. Kline, is an Indiana University alumnus—as, incidentally, is Ms. Streep, to whom we recently awarded an honorary doctorate.

Enriching our Ways of Knowing

Some of you who graduate today know these facilities and programs very well. Some of you have studied, performed, exhibited works, or conducted research in these venues and their affiliated departments. Many more of you take with you fond memories of your times as audience members in these and other campus and community venues.

But what does all this mean for those of you who will graduate today in disciplines that may seem far afield from the arts?

First, the arts are an essential way that all people explain their experiences, frame their identities, and envision the future.

As Ernest Boyer also said in his address of 20 years ago: “We need the arts to express ideas and feelings in ways beyond words. …we need the arts to stir creativity and enrich (our) ways of knowing …we need the arts to integrate the fragments of academic life …and, above all, we need the arts to create community and to build connections across the generations.”2

As Boyer suggests, human experiences are sometimes so profound that words alone cannot give them full expression.

We witnessed a wonderful example of this here on the Bloomington campus just a few weeks ago when the Jacobs School of Music staged a powerful and moving performance of Benjamin Britten’s great War Requiem as part of IU’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. The Requiem evokes, in a way that words alone cannot, the futility of war and the enormous suffering it has caused.

The arts, as Boyer also suggests, help to integrate the fragments of academic life.

Albert Einstein once wrote that all religions, all arts, and all sciences are “branches of the same tree.”3 The arts can help us to discover connections between seemingly unrelated fields and ideas.

The IU Cinema, for example, is dedicated to the scholarly study of film, not only as a great art form in its own right, but also as an important educational tool. Film can immeasurably enhance understanding and add perspective to any subject, as can theatre, music, dance, and the literary and visual arts.

Of course, the nonprofit arts and culture industry also has an enormous impact on our economy. In its most recent Arts and Economic Prosperity survey, the nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts reported that, in 2010, the industry generated more than $135 billion of economic activity in the United States and supported more than four million full-time jobs.4

For all of these reasons and many more, the arts are supported not only by direct public funds, but also by private and corporate philanthropy. And today more than ever, the nonprofit arts community needs well-educated and distinguished professionals, like our Commencement speaker, Chairwoman Chu, who are at the vanguard of understanding and shaping 21st century philanthropy.

The Class of 2014

The arts are also essential in the development of citizens who are equipped to be productive and thoughtful participants in a changing world.

Members of the Class of 2014, you are such citizens.

You have excelled in the classroom.

During your years at Indiana University, you have received an education that has not only prepared you to enter the workforce, but one that has enhanced your critical thinking and problem solving skills. Your Indiana University education has instilled in you the desire to ask—and the capacity to try to seek answers to questions about prosperity and poverty, about energy, globalization, technology, and fundamental questions about right and wrong.

Many among you also have helped to improve the quality of life for members of this community and citizens of the world. You have mentored at-risk school children in Monroe County, helped to build homes for Monroe County families in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, and raised money to help find cures and treatments for Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

You have helped to raise money for IU scholarships through your participation in one of our great traditions, Little 500, and you have raised record amounts—more than $3.2 million this year alone—in support of Riley Hospital for Children through your participation in the IU Dance Marathon, IU’s largest student philanthropic event and one of the largest events of its kind at any university anywhere in the country.

The Art of Dreaming

Well over a century ago, the renowned English art and social critic John Ruskin wrote that “Great art (is) the art of dreaming.”5

Members of the Indiana University Class of 2014, may your dreams grow ever more ambitious as you become citizens of the world.

You are now ready to make your mark on the world, to make new discoveries, to seek solutions to the challenges we face in the 21st century.

I wish you all the very best good fortune as you embark on the next phase of your lives.

May you create an even brighter future for yourselves and for all of us.

Source Notes

  1. Ernest Boyer, “Lifelong Learning in the Arts,” delivered before the National Endowment for the Arts, Chicago, Illinois, April 16, 1994, Vital Speeches of the Day, Volume LXI, Number 1, October, 1994, 15.
  2. Ibid., 18.
  3. Albert Einstein, “Moral Decay,” 1937, as reprinted in The Einstein Reader, (Citadel Press, 2006), 7.
  4. Arts & Economic Prosperity IV: the Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations and Their Audiences, Summary Report, Americans for the Arts, 2010.
  5. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, IV, 384, as reprinted in William Sloane Kennedy (editor), Art and Life: a Ruskin Anthology, (J. B. Alden, 1886), 21.