May 26, 2021: Commencement Address

Let me begin by again congratulating our graduates today on all your many accomplishments over the course of your years here at Peabody. You have worked hard, overcome obstacles, and called on internal resources you never knew you had in order to get to this point. And now, you are at the beginning of a great adventure, one that will have its peaks and valleys, but you have learned to be resilient, especially over the last year, and always to return to the purpose that has driven you to be an artist from the beginning.

I also invite you to take a moment to think about, and thank, all the people in your lives that have helped you arrive at this point today. None of us do it all by ourselves. Parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers, mentors and others were there to help you find your way, perhaps when you had your doubts. So – please do thank all the folks that have made a difference in your life.

Now, I must say, that if you had told me at graduation last year that we’d be doing another virtual graduation a year hence, I probably would not have believed it. But, here we are. As improbable, and unwelcome as it might have seemed, the last year has introduced us to a whole new way of life.

And we have learned a lot through this pandemic. We’ve learned how to more effectively leverage technology, expanded our view of the performance experience, and surely become even more appreciative of what it means to be able to gather and participate in a communal experience, whether it’s a music or dance performance, a play, or a walk through a museum; precious experiences all.

I am enormously mindful of how difficult the last year has been for so many, and we’ve had to make our share of hard decisions as well. And yet, thanks to the wonderful faculty, staff and students who have shown such flexibility, adaptability, creativity, and good spirit over this last year, Peabody has continued to thrive. I am grateful to you all.

Now, I can’t help but think about what you all are graduating into at this remarkable time. The performing arts has never been an easy career path, and now so many new challenges face our field.

To help answer some truly profound questions, and lead an industry wide conversation around these challenges, in February Peabody convened and hosted The Next Normal: Arts Innovation and Resilience in a Post-COVID World, a national symposium that included discussions with thought leaders from the artistic, administrative, and funding communities across the classical music world. We had more than 1,300 participants from all walks of the professional performing arts in attendance, including current and potential future employers of Peabody graduates. And what was immediately apparent to me was the hunger for, and exuberance at, being together virtually to talk about how the performing arts can emerge from the pandemic and – perhaps most important – how we leverage the experience to make fundamental change for the classical music world and more broadly the performing arts, as we grapple with long-term trends that challenge our field.

While in truth, we could barely scratch the surface in just one day, certain themes emerged.

First, we all recognize that the short-term road to recovery for the performing arts will be uneven, and likely not a straight line upward. Our industry was battered by the economic impact of the pandemic – as were others, but the performing arts especially so. And given some of the challenges performing institutions already were facing – attracting new audiences, rising costs, under-resourced institutions, conflict over contracts, and changing demographics – one can only imagine the challenges of surviving a life-changing event whereby all performances were for the most part, cancelled for more than a year. At the same time, there is a determination, passion and resilience in artistic institutions and artists that ultimately bodes well for recovery.

But in truth, the more interesting, and I think important questions may be around the long-term needs of our industry and field, and how we can leverage the opportunities that come out of the adversity we’ve all faced.

One of these themes is the urgent need for our field to diversify our institutions including our administrations, performing rosters, board members, audiences, and more. For a long time, our field has paid lip service to the importance of diversity, and approached this issue as peripheral. What has more recently emerged is the sure knowledge that we must elevate diversity to a position commensurate with excellence, and in fact understand that diversity and excellence are inextricably linked, even challenging the limitations of how we historically have defined excellence.

When one considers the historically uncomfortable relationship that our field has had with diversity, and then considers the rising urgency around anti-racism and social justice driven by the unconscionable, and too often sanctioned, violence against people of color, and the impact of the recent guilty verdict for George Floyd’s murder – a long awaited and possible historical tipping point – coupled with the accelerating change in demographics in our country, it would be reckless and indeed I would argue, professional malpractice for our field to see the issues of anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion as anything but central to our future.

The other theme is the need to build performing arts institutions that are more flexible and adaptable structurally and programmatically, responsive to communities, open to evolving ways of making art that is relevant to peoples’ lives and needs, and embraced by an increasingly diverse audience. Along with this, and this is key, we must train creative artists with the kind of orientation that rewards and values the journey to who is being reached and how, as much as what is produced by the artist. And we all must approach our work, our institutions, and the people we impact, and those we would like to engage with, with a sense of humility.

Let’s be honest. Performing arts institutions despite being places of robust creativity, have been largely unwilling or unable to maneuver to adjust to the market, or to build organizations that are flexible and nimble. We have often built structures that were unprepared to adapt and change, even when threatened by increased competition, unsustainable financial models, unresponsive administrators, undercapitalized institutions, and changing audiences. And that has in turn led to artists that lack flexibility and adaptability, and who have not been adequately equipped for this brave new world.

I think the future depends on all this changing. I think all of us who are part of this field are challenged to be bolder, take more risks – and accept and learn from the mistakes that come with risk – while not losing sight of why we fell in love with what we do in the first place.

I am proud that Peabody is in part leading this important conversation, and am buoyed by seeing that the kinds of things that are so important to the future of the field – diversity, flexibility, and adaptability right alongside the pride we all have in our artistic outcomes – are the very things that we have been working on in a strategic and intentional way at Peabody in recent years. It is why we put the Breakthrough Curriculum in place; it is why we have had a laser-like focus on diversifying our faculty and student population; it is why we’ve invested in important early-life programs and partnerships to create equitable access to our field. We are now more determined than ever to continue on that path.

So, as you, our graduates today, consider your role in this brave new world, I invite and urge you to think about how you relate to these priorities that are crying out for energetic, creative, authentic and thoughtful solutions. I know you’ll bring your passion and artistic commitment, and many beautiful performances to the world. Now, I challenge you to think hard about what your role will be in creating a more diverse and equitable performing arts field; how will you be part of changing and advancing the artistic institutions with whom you are affiliated. How will you be more flexible, adaptable, and nimble, and settle for nothing less from your institutions – just as many of you have already helped push Peabody forward in its institutional thinking and approach.

While it may be hard to imagine, you may be surprised to find that this is where you in fact find the most joy, and make the greatest contribution.

Peabody is proud of you today. I am proud of you today. And I know that as you go out, and find your way in life and career, you will do wonderful things, and you’ll do them with the same grit and determination that has brought you to this point today.

I congratulate you, and am especially proud that today and going forward you call yourselves Peabody alumni.