Congratulations to the Class of 2014, 61 students strong. BFA, BA and Certificate degrees were bestowed during ceremonies at the Downtown Presbyterian Church on May 17, as well as an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree to Nashville Mayor Karl F. Dean, who also delivered the Commencement address. Johnny Whitman, BFA in Graphic Design, was named winner of the Samuel Watkins Award of Excellence for having the highest GPA.
Below are remarks by President Ellen L. Meyer, followed by the mayor’s speech.
Photos by Tyler Blankenship ’12
Introduction by President Ellen L. Meyer of
the recipient of the Honorary Degree, Doctor of Fine Arts
Karl F. Dean
Imagine you are adrift in space with a satellite’s view of all the nearby planets. Suddenly you are moving toward Earth, specifically its northern hemisphere. As you speed along, you begin to recognize the shape of North America. Moving ever closer, you trace the line of the great Mississippi River. Through a mist of clouds, your eyes are drawn eastward to the green state of Tennessee, to its sparkling, gem-like city of Nashville.
What will you find when you visit this place, unique in its latitude and longitude, unique in its make-up of streets, of buildings, of environment, of culture, of people?
Nashville. Its venerable chief, a thoughtful, listening leader, will be your terrestrial guide. As mayor, the honorable Karl Dean shows you his pride and joy: a thriving city no less a work of art than any masterpiece. You soon realize that this place you have found—this robust economy teeming with productivity; this abode to artists, engineers, musicians and teachers; this place of cultural richness; this home proudly claimed by its inhabitants—has in fact found you.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce you to this artist-mayor, the maestro of Nashville, today’s commencement speaker and honorary doctorate recipient, and to tell you how his work to make this city a safe and welcoming place for all, especially artists, has made Nashville a destination for the mind, body and soul.
A true lover of art, literature and humanity, Mayor Dean says, “I don’t know how a person could be well rounded and achieve all that they can achieve unless they’re exposed to the arts.” Thus, while Nashville has long been a place that attracts and inspires creative people, under our current mayor’s direction, it is increasingly committed to discovering and upholding them.
The mayor’s arts-friendly governance has been good for Nashville’s global profile. Already renowned as a music mecca, higher education center and healthcare nexus, and now with one of the nation’s fastest-growing populations, Nashville has been tagged an “it” city, “red hot” and “electric.” Last year Condé Nast listed Nashville among the top five travel destinations in the world. It appears regularly on “best-of” lists for business, music, food and affordability. Perhaps most importantly to those present here today, the city has been called one of the “best places to be an artist.”
Mayor Dean has been influential in ensuring that funding for arts and culture remains steadfast. In recent, difficult budget cycles, the libraries and the arts have received modest increases, and over $10.8 million in arts and culture grants have been awarded to more than 100 community agencies. Nashvillians of all ages participate in the Nashville Reads literary campaign, the education program Music Makes Us, and Artober, a month-long celebration of arts and culture. And through the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, the Mayor has overseen the installation of 29 new public art pieces.
Mayor Dean integrated the creative industry into city decision-making through the formation of the Music City Music Council, whose notable initiatives include Ryman Lofts, Nashville’s first affordable apartment residence geared toward career artists. The Mayor also championed Nashville’s first formal arts district, 5th Avenue of the Arts. — I’m sure many of you enjoy the monthly Saturday night art crawls, which now include Watkins’ first offsite gallery, located in the downtown arcade.
The Mayor and his administration have welcomed the participation of Watkins in the city’s ongoing transformation, and faculty members have contributed in meaningful ways. In this past year, the Mayor launched the Nashville Film Television Transmedia Council, comprised of leading film and video businesses, professionals and educators, including Film School Chair Richard Gershman. And, in the impressive new convention space, Music City Center, an extensive public art collection includes work from Fine Art faculty members Terry Thacker, Brady Haston and Chair Kristi Hargrove.
Mayor Dean continues to draw on the wisdom and experience of the city’s creative class by making art and culture a key theme in NashvilleNext, a 25-year planning document, so that future galactic travelers can also find and be found by this great city.
Mayor Karl Dean, for your commitment to cultural diversity, for recognizing that an economy that supports its artists will always be vital and relevant, and for your contributions in making Nashville a place that welcomes creators of all kinds, it is with honor that Watkins College of Art, Design & Film bestows upon you the degree, Doctor of Fine Arts.
Commencement speech by
The Honorable Karl F. Dean,
Mayor, Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County
Thank you, President Meyer, the Watkins Board of Trustees and the entire Watkins community, for this Honorary Degree. I am truly humbled, and this is a moment I will never forget. But today is not about me.
It is about all of you graduates out here who have dedicated the last several years of your lives to reaching this day.
It is about your teachers, who have pushed you when you needed pushing and praised you when you needed praising. It is about your families, many of whom have sacrificed to make your dream possible. Today, graduates, is your day. I hope you will all take some time to appreciate how far you have come before you begin your journey forward from here.
As Mayor, I have to say that I am incredibly thankful to have Watkins College in our city. While we may be known around the world as “Music City” – and for good reason – the real story of our city’s success is that our community is filled with creative people of all types.
We’re home to musicians and songwriters of course, but also visual artists like all of you, as well as creative entrepreneurial types who dream up new business models and innovations.
There’s a philosophy – a philosophy that I believe in whole-heartedly – that the most successful cities of the 21st century will be cities that attract the best human capital – people who are smart, creative, and entrepreneurial.
It’s people like you who drive innovation and industry in cities. We need your ideas and energy to create jobs and grow our local economy. Creative people help keep our city vibrant.
Bob Dylan once said “if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.” That’s certainly true for a city. If a city is not constantly reinventing itself and growing and changing – if a city is just sitting stagnant in terms of development and jobs – than it’ a city that’s dying.
Nashville is constantly being reborn.
For the last two years, we’ve had some of the highest percentage job growth in the country. We’re one of the fastest-growing large cities in the country in terms of population growth. And perhaps most telling – over the last year, we’ve had some of the highest levels of construction spending ever in our city history.
And the world is taking notice. Last year the New York Times called us the latest “it” city. And just as locals were getting tired of hearing me talk about that, TIME magazine came out with an article calling us the “South’s Red-Hot Town.”
Our recovery from the Great Recession has outpaced many of our competitor cities.
Why are we doing so great? I would say because of people like you.
I saw a comment from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg once where he said capital is attracted to talent far more than talent is attracted to capital. It is so true. Bright, talented people are going to pick the city they want to be in based on what kind of life they can have there. And businesses are going to be pick the city they want to be in based on the pool of talent available to work for them. Smart, innovative people are attracted to places where their creativity is embraced and where they have opportunities to grow their talent and let their ideas flourish.
The impact that creative people have had on Nashville can be seen all over our city. From beautiful pieces of art that hang in our galleries and in public art displays–
To unique architectural designs, like the Music City Center and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center–
To the great film work done on music videos, films and on TV shows like Nashville–
To our largest industries – like music and hospitality, and even healthcare management, which was born through entrepreneurial thinking and creative business people willing to try something different.
I am thrilled to see so many of you graduating today. Some of you may have plans to move elsewhere – you may even have a job already lined up in another city. But for many of you – hopefully most of you – nothing would be better for our city than for you to make Nashville your permanent home. We’re working hard every day to make our city a better city than any other place you could choose to live.
From quality of life – such as parks and greenways – to availability of jobs. But because we value the importance of creative people, we’ve also worked on efforts that are tailor-suited to your needs. Like Ryman Lofts – the first affordable housing development specifically for artists in Nashville. And the Entrepreneur Center – which is helping smart, creative people of all types develop their ideas and talent into money-making ventures. For the most part, the Entrepreneur Center focuses on healthcare and tech startups – which is great. I believe their work is going to help build the next generation of homegrown companies that will spur the next 50 years of our city’s economic growth.
But it’s just as important that they’re focusing efforts to strengthen our base of artistically creative citizens, as well.
There’s a program for artists at the Entrepreneur Center called Periscope. It’s a six-week workshop giving 25 creators – whether they create music or visual art or something else – the tools they need to be successful business people, so that they can take their talent and generate enough revenue to be self-sufficient and successful.
Just as important as recognizing the value of creativity in a city, successful cities typically have something else in common as well – they’re welcoming and open to all people.
We have worked to make Nashville a city where no matter your race, your religion, your gender, your background or who you love – we recognize that everyone has something to offer, everyone has value.
There’s a famous description of a city upon a hill that describes: “… a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
That’s the type of city we want Nashville to be.
So I hope you will take what you’ve learned here at Watkins and use it to help our city continue to grow and thrive. What you bring to our city as a creative individual is incredibly important.
My college graduation was a few years back. OK, more than a few. But I remember very clearly the mix of emotions.The pride of accomplishing the goal I had set for myself. The relief of thinking that I was done with all-nighters and the stress of exams — although law school brought more of that for me down the road. The fear of stepping out into the world.
Looking back now, there are some things I would say to my 20-something-year-old self. And since he’s not here — and you are — I’ll say them to you.
First, do what makes you happy.
You are all talented people. And clearly, you are good at your talent or you wouldn’t be here today
Pablo Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” You have all apparently avoided that pitfall. But there are other lessons we can learn from children. While some things are better left in childhood — like temper tantrums and an obsession with chicken nuggets — I sometimes think the world would be a better place if we were more like our children in some ways.
They know how to embrace what they love. They find joy and beauty in the world around them. They play hard and live in the moment. They do what they love, and they do it with complete abandon. There’s a lesson we can all learn from that.
Obviously, we have to do some things we aren’t thrilled about. We all have to pay taxes. And spend time doing some of the mundane things that are required so that we can do the things we enjoy. But I encourage you to choose your career wisely. Not for the fame or fortune it might bring you. But because it is what makes you excited to go to work every day.
I have been lucky these past six and a half years. I have the best job in the world. There are parts of it that aren’t all that much fun. But every day, I get up and I am excited to go to my office, to go out in the community, to be the Mayor of a growing and prosperous city.
I wish for all of you that same level of joy in the careers you choose.
My second bit of advice to my younger self — and to you — is to set high goals for yourselves. Set them impossibly high, and then aim even higher. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Anything worth doing is going to come with a risk of failure.
When I look back at the big decisions in my life, every one of them involved taking a leap of faith. Going to law school. Getting married. Running for public office. They all required hard work, and they all came with risks. But the work and the risks were worth it every time.
Did I always succeed? Absolutely not. But every experience helped me grow.
When I look back, I honestly don’t remember the simple decisions I made. Or the easy ones. I remember the ones that excited me. The ones that required me to work hard and believe in myself. The ones that came with risk.
And so if I could talk to my 22-year-old self now, I would tell him to aim even higher. To take even more risks. And I would say the same to you.
Today, you have reached a major milestone.Your graduation today shows that you can aim high- and that you have what it takes to reach your goals. So keep that up, and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.
And finally, if there was one more bit of advice I would give it would be this: find a way to make a difference.
You don’t have to cure cancer. Or achieve world peace. Or even figure out a way to resolve the bickering in Washington, although that would be nice.
But find a way, however big or small, to make a difference in someone else’s life.
One of the most incredible periods in my time as Mayor was May of 2010, when our city experienced the most devastating natural disaster I could have ever imagined. Some of you probably were just making arrangements to come to Nashville that next Fall.
In two days, over 19 inches of rain fell. Rivers spilled into the streets. A portable building from a school was sent floating down Interstate 24. Our city was declared a national disaster area. Ten Nashvillians lost their lives. Thousands lost their homes. It could have been a time for people to close themselves off from others. There could have been looting. And increased crime. And instead, the most amazing thing happened.
Total strangers came out, by the thousands, and helped their fellow citizens. People were going down streets, handing out food and water. They were side by side with people they had never met, helping them clean their homes, salvage their belongings, and put their lives back together. It was amazing. Country music stars came out in force to donate money and bring attention to the situation.
It was my one of my proudest moments as Mayor.
The saying that came out of those times can still be seen on shirts and bumper stickers around the city — And it sums up the community spirit so well:
“We Are Nashville.”
And so I tell you that story to say that those days came and went. The water receded. Destroyed houses were rebuilt. Damaged buildings were repaired. And everyone moved on.
So why am I telling you about this flood that happened four years ago?
This is why: Because if you go ask any one of those thousands of people who volunteered what their proudest moments have been, I am willing to bet that the way they came together in the aftermath of that flood will be on every one of their top ten lists.
They didn’t wake up that day the rain started with some plan to go help total strangers. But then the opportunity came, Nashvillians rose to the occasion.
So you may not encounter a great flood. I certainly hope you don’t. But you will have unexpected chances in life to make a real difference for someone else.
My advice to you — and to my younger self — would be to take advantage of those opportunities. When you have a chance to reach out and make a difference for someone else, do it.
If you do that, then you will have lived a successful life.