2017 Graduation remarks by keynote speaker Ingrid Schaffner
I’m so happy to be part of the graduating class of 2017. Especially because this is my second time to graduate from a Women’s College. In 1983, I received my undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke, the first women’s college in America, founded in 1837, just 11 years prior to Moore opening its doors: the first and only college of visual arts and design for women. Sisters, when I chose to go to Mount Holyoke, it was not to NOT be around men—it was a college, not a monastery, naturally there were plenty of men around. The choice I made was to be with women and to get to know myself as a woman. Meaning, when I went college I had very little idea of what I wanted to do afterward.
It was a precious and empowering time for me, as I am sure it has been for you and your classmates. And us being together now as women is even more relevant today. Looking at you, I’m thinking of the Women’s Marches that took place around the world, just over 100 days ago, that demonstrated how vigilant we are and must continue to be to defend those truths that ARE self-evident—that all people are created equal and a woman’s choice is A WOMAN’S CHOICE. Looking at you, I know it’s going to be alright. Why? Because you are about to receive diplomas in art and design, diplomas that prove you have the power to envision beautiful things and create a truly progressive future.
(Let us not see our pink knitted hats replaced with the crimson robes of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaidens Tale.)
Looking at you, I’m thinking that when I graduated from college, I found myself where many of you find yourselves today. Having spent the last couple of years immersed in an enriching chapter of study: the moment of graduation comes to find most of us most definitely not sure of where all that hard work is heading. But this is also very much where I find myself today, in this state of not knowing exactly where my work is leading, or what my next project will be. And being open to that state, I have found to be a very productive place to be in. It’s what got me here today and will keep me going forward with my work to come. Let me explain.
After college, I embarked on a five-year internship: to myself. I headed to New York—armed with my trusty art history degree and a nice sum of student debt—for a curatorial fellowship at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was nearly non-paying, fellows received a weekly
$90 stipend for guarding the exhibitions that we had organized. So I also had a part-time job as a “girl Friday” for an art consultant, doing everything from picking up dry-cleaning, and doing the bookkeeping, to preparing slide presentations for the private and corporate collectors,
architects and public art projects that were her clients. In glowing memory, I see myself serving “babyschenken” (sticky little danish shaped liked snails) to Victor Ganz, the eminent collector of Pablo Picasso and Eva Hess, during a meeting at his art-filled apartment. Less gloriously, but more usefully, I learned from a woman who ran her own business how to work as an independent professional. How to cobble together a living from many different projects, how to write proposals, get jobs, bill people, and pay taxes. That’s when my internship to myself turned into me becoming be an independent curator, which is what I gradually found myself doing for the next decade. Organizing exhibitions of contemporary art for galleries and museums on a freelance basis.
This was not a terribly well paying proposition. And, not unlike an artist, I did a lot of other things to support my work as a curator, including archiving and bookkeeping for artists in their studios. I also started writing criticism and publishing in art magazines: but this too fell more in the avocation department of work we feel perhaps more born, than paid, to do. That said, for me at the time, the compensation was not the $65 I was paid to review an exhibition review—that probably took me 3 days to do—but the invaluable experience of learning to work with editors and see my words in print—the compensation was to be able to do my work
New York then was really not that much different than it is today: expensive and hard to find a place to live. I sublet my way through many years and neighborhoods until I could afford to settle in a place of my own. That’s fine, That’s Normal. One BIG difference now is that while you could say then that New York was the capital of contemporary culture. Today that isn’t the case. Contemporary art—of all stripes and disciplines—along with the marketplaces and contexts for seeing and thinking about it—is happening everywhere. Because of the internet, and digital culture that connects us globally, and because artists themselves aren’t buying into the hegemony of New York. So when you are thinking about where your work is going to lead you: think about Pittsburgh perhaps. And Transformazium: the collaborative group of three women artists who left Brooklyn for the Burgh to enmesh themselves and their community-based art practice in a local public library, where they set up ceramic and silkscreen studios, and an art lending library, where anyone with a library card can check out a work of art, like just like you would a book. Or think about Matti Sloman and Emily Winter, the artist/design team, who run The Weaving Mill: a small industrial mill that works with people of diverse textile experience—to make a space, and blankets, between the hand and the machine—outside of Chicago.
Or maybe you are staying in Philadelphia. Another excellent choice for art and artists. As I well know from my 15 years as curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. (This was my first full-time job, by the way, after years of working freelance.) While at ICA, I had the opportunity to do exhibitions with Sarah McEneaney, Karen Kilimnik, Louise Fishman, three in a great lineage women painters from Philadelphia, including also Alice Neel and Mary Cassatt. [And if you have time this weekend, go to the Fabric Workshop and Museum to see an exhibition I had a small hand in, of work by Lenka Clayton. Check out her Artists Residency in Motherhood and her reenvisioning of Brancusi’s “Sculpture for the Blind” with blind people.]
About the time you started here at Moore, I left Philadelphia for Pittsburgh for my current gig at the Carnegie Museum of Art. I was hired to be the curator of the next Carnegie International: America’s most historic survey of current art from around the world started in 1896, mine will be 57th, in 2018. So we have been on somewhat parallel courses these past couple of years: while you have been on your journey of creativity and self-discovery here at Moore, I have been based in Pittsburgh, traveling and learning about new art and artists. And like you, enriching my capacity with study and work. And where you are today, I too will become 2019, when my exhibition at the Carnegie Museum is over: my work there is done and I am bound to do something new.
In other words, I identify with where you are sitting right now. And I say, what a great place to be. This moment of transition is something to cherish and to keep returning to throughout your life and work ahead. Why? Because work leads to work. This is the great lesson of the creative life you have dedicated yourself to. The cliche of the blank canvas, the empty page, the naked mannequin, is real: it’s terrifying to start fresh, to always be going, it seems, back to beginning. But that’s also the great reward of a creative life: this potential and it MOMENT. Something is always taking shape ~ building on what you have done before ~ WORK LEADS TO WORK. And when you feel anxious or afraid that no more work will come, go for a walk, or start doing something else: your work will find you. Be open to opening up to the next thing. ALWAYS.
I thought about us today, all wearing our graduation robes, and I’m looking at you now and WE LOOK GREAT. We are wearing our achievement. These fetching caps and gowns have a certain neutrality that is powerful too. They unify and identify us as a group of women who have worked hard to receive an education and we celebrate with friends and family today that which will keep rewarding us for years to come. After the ceremony, when we take off our gowns—disrobe, if you will—we return to our individual selves. I’m thinking that covered up by this sea of gowns are all of the fabulous outfits you are wearing. And if the gown represents your years in college, of crafting your inside self, that outfit underneath you shows you crafting yourself for the outside world every day.
This crafting is important—this daily creativity—of self-fashioning. From Philadelphia, this afternoon, I am going to New York (yeah, yeah New York) I’m going to see three dresses. First to the Brooklyn Museum to see the dress of Georgia O’Keeffe: one of the most iconic figures of American art. We know her great painting of giant flowers, clouds, and cow skulls. But did you know she made her own clothes? That severe and chiseled look of her art extended to her attire ~ to modern black dresses and coats, which she actually sewed herself. (Perhaps as famous as O’Keeffe’s paintings are the images of her dressed, and undressed, taken by her famous photographer husband Alfred Steiglitz. In one of his many pictures of her exquisite hands, she is wearing a thimble.) The next dress I’m going to see is Rei Kawakubo’s. The Japanese designer whose label “Commes des Garcons” revolutionized fashion is the subject of a major exhibition at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kawakubo is best known for creating outfits that look like sleeping bags that went through the wrong cycle in the washing machine and dryer before being rolled up and worn on the body like a strange growth or extra appendage. “I’m not interested in making clothes to wear,” Kawakubo has said of her artistic and liberating approach to fashion.
The third dress is Jae Jarrell’s. A member of the Africobra Black Power movement, Jarrell’s work is part of the exhibition “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85” on view at the Brooklyn Museum's Feminist Center for Contemporary Art. Jarrell’s dress combines a sophisticated history of African textile traditions with the graphic punch of her politics. Her dress is like wearing a protest banner: chic and radical.
What these dresses have in common is a sense of freedom and discipline. As acts of daily creativity, they show us that You too have the power to construct yourself through your work—everyday. And tomorrow, when you get up, I know you are going to feel great when you get dressed and are A GRADUATE OF MOORE COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN, CLASS OF 2017.