UConn School of Fine Arts Hooding Ceremony 2019
I was invited to speak at the 2019 School of Fine Arts Hooding Ceremony as an alumni of the MFA program. The following was presented on May 11, 2019 at the von der Mehden recital hall. UConn offers graduate degrees in Art, Music, Theatre, Puppetry, Digital Media Design, and Arts Administration.
Good morning friends, mentors, colleagues, and peers. When asked to give remarks at the hooding ceremony, I was honored and thrilled with the opportunity. Since receiving an MFA from UConn in 2016, I have less than gracefully stumbled into a career in curating and writing, all while still making and teaching. (I am incredibly busy). I attribute some of my success (and some of my glorious, failures-turned-learning-moments) to my time studying and growing at UConn, knowing I would not have been nearly as prepared to take on my roles at Real Art Ways, UConn’s Hartford Campus, and the University of Hartford had it not been for what I learned here.
I recently began reconsidering the label “artist”, as it only encompasses one aspect of my life. Instead, I’ve begun to think of myself (and other artists) as cultural workers. It sounds pretentious, I know, but hear me out. As cultural workers, we are problem solvers. We think critically about issues surrounding language, bodies, politics, and many other concepts. We are called upon to determine the aesthetic and conceptual underpinnings of our society, whether they like it or not sometimes. And throughout all of that, a cultural worker values their own labor, and insists upon equitable treatment for it. The “cultural worker” moniker is a declaration of our value for what we do, make, organize, curate, write, and otherwise create.
At this point, you all know that an artist does so much more than “make art”. Whether you’re a musician, a designer, an arts administrator, a painter, a sculptor, or somewhere in between or elsewhere, you’re always doing more than simply practicing your craft. You’re creating and engaging in dialogues, you’re writing, you’re making connections, you’re occasionally engaging in self-destructive isolationist behaviors (or is that just me?). Whatever it is you’re doing, it cannot be defined or confined by a 9-5 schedule. Even in my own kushy nonprofit arts administration job, I am never not working. Cultural workers are the pinnacle of hustle culture -- always working towards the next “thing”. Sometimes it can be self-destructive, I admit, and we do need to learn how to practice self-care. But at the same time, there’s something inside us all that pushes us to continue.
The fact of the matter is that larger society will try to exploit you, your labor, and your ideas. Artists, writers, and other cultural workers are constantly battling against unpaid invoices, dwindling granting institutions, and a lack of recognition for our work in the world. While we work to advance aesthetic and philosophical conversations on local, national, and international levels, we also live in a government that is currently trying to diminish federal funding for the arts and humanities. In what feels like a Culture Wars 2.0, cultural workers are (sometimes unintentionally) thrown into the middle of political controversies.
And yet, we persevere. Even when our mothers and fathers and relatives and caretakers question our choices in education, wondering whether or not we’ll ever get a real job, sometimes living in their basements while working at Starbucks hoping to get into the next show or get that next job, we press on. Where Latanya S. Autry says “Museums are not Neutral”, I add “cultural workers are not neutral”. Sometimes, the act of making is itself a political act. And sometimes it isn’t, and that’s OK too.
Regardless, a graduate degree is more than just a piece of paper and a fancy hood to add to your garment. It represents tools and abilities you contain that can never be fully translated to the pages of a resume or CV. It’s the living document of the triumphs, sorrows, friendships, and everything else you experienced while at UConn. It’s a connection to a network of other cultural workers who, like yourselves, experienced something similar. You’re joining hundreds of other people working in the field. Some have fancy tenure track positions, and others scrape by to afford their next canvas, and some do whatever they can to keep busy and keep making no matter how many sleepless nights it means.
Don’t fret. It may seem like everything is on fire, but if there’s one thing your graduate studies taught you, it’s to remain cool under pressure and retain contortionist-like flexibility during stressful situations. You’ve got this, I believe in you.