On June 19th I delivered a commencement address to the graduating class of Philadelphia's High School of the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA). A number of people asked me to post it. Text is below...
Greetings everyone, Principal Whaley, parents, students, faculty and all special guests. I am Gary Steuer, the Chief Cultural Officer for the City of Philadelphia, and I run the City’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.
It is my great honor to be here to today to celebrate these outstanding graduates, the best creative young people that our City can produce.
Being a part of this program has a special resonance for me. While I did not go to CAPA, or even grow up in Philadelphia, I can relate to all of the students graduating today. That is because I graduated from LaGuardia High School for the Arts in New York City, which is the equivalent of CAPA in New York. In fact I graduated 40 years ago, almost to the day. So I was in your shoes a long time ago. I also had the honor of representing the Mayor to greet you on the first day of school of 2009 when you first arrived at CAPA, and I feel like being here to send you off is completing the circle.
So my high school years were also spent balancing academia and art, and the school was filled with aspiring visual artists, dancers, musicians, and actors. But the reality is that only a relatively small percentage of the graduates actually went into the arts as their primary career. I am sort of the exception.
My fellow graduates went into such diverse professions as law, social work, business, teaching, and healthcare. But whatever we did, our experience as artists shaped who we were – made us more creative, better collaborators, more disciplined – that is what making art teaches you.
AND some graduates did go into the arts, including the for-profit commercial arts, becoming film producers, graphic designers, architects and recording engineers. And yes, some even became working artists, actors, dancers and musicians. And at least one became this weird thing called a Chief Cultural Officer.
The reality is that when you look at the creative sector as a larger economic sector that includes for-profit and nonprofit businesses, the sector employs 50,000 people in Philadelphia, making it the fourth largest employment industry sector in the City, behind only health care, education and retail. So let me put it bluntly: there ARE jobs out there in the real world for you when you are finished with college.
And when researchers study what businesses are looking for in new employees, they find business is looking for exactly the sort of skills and qualities that the arts foster in us. So a powerful grounding in making art, any kind of art, makes you better at whatever you do, even if professional art-making ends up not being where you end up.
For me, it was a very roundabout road that led me to where I am today, and I thought it might be helpful to share a bit of my career path.
I wanted to go to a BFA art conservatory training program for college, but my folks really wanted me to get a liberal arts degree. They had the money so guess who won that battle? But I have to say, maybe they were right. While doing my undergraduate training, I still took lots of studio art courses, but I found myself also studying, acting, directing, literature, and political science.
I ended up doing an internship for a United States Congressman that turned into a job. Through pure chance it turned out the Congressman’s chief of staff had a friend who worked at the museum of Modern Art who needed some extra help. So I moonlighted at MoMA and realized that there were actually lots of jobs at place like museums – doing fundraising, marketing, finance, etc. – not just being a curator or an artist. For me it was sort of like that scene in the Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls back the curtain and you learn that the Wizard of Oz is just an ordinary man. I learned the magic of the arts is fueled by lots of people with real jobs not making art, but making arts organizations run. So I went back to school to get a Masters in Arts Management.
That led eventually to running theatre companies and also working on producing commercial productions on and off Broadway. For a while – when I had young children of my own and working the long hours of running a theatre company was more difficult – I also ran a funding department of the New York State Council on the Arts. And then for about a dozen years I was President and CEO of a national organization called the Arts & Business Council that promotes mutually-beneficial partnership between the arts and business. That group then merged with another national organization called Americans for the Arts.
And then Mayor Nutter, after he was first elected, persuaded me that there was an exciting opportunity here in Philadelphia to help transform this great City through the creative energy of the arts and creative enterprise, running this new thing he created called the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. It has been unbelievably rewarding to be a part of the Renaissance that has been taking place in this City over the past 5 years, despite the tough economy. Reversing a 50 year population decline, doubling the percentage of college graduates who choose to STAY in the City after they graduate. Fostering a creative sector that generates well over $3 billion economic impact AND PRODUCES 50,000 creative jobs.
BUT, and there is a big but, and one that many of the students and parents know all too well. This City certainly still has some pretty serious challenges. It is still the poorest big city in America, with many neighborhoods filled with people who have trouble finding jobs, hope and opportunity. We have a School District that cannot afford to sustain the level of education that our children, families and citizens – and our administrators and teachers – know MUST be provided to our young people if they are to have quality educational opportunity. And we know that education – not just for kids lucky enough to go to CAPA, MUST include arts education if we are going to produce graduates ready for the 21st Century workforce.
So here is my charge to you: Go out and train as artist if that is where your heart and ambition takes you: make art, act, sing, dance. And if your education, passions or chance, take you away from a life as a practicing artist, bring your creativity and innovation FROM the arts to whatever you choose to study or whatever field you choose to work in. And find a way to continue to make the arts a part of your life: play in a band on the side, sing in a chorus, have an art studio in your garage, go to shows, volunteer for an arts group. There are so many ways you can make this – what you have done here at CAPA – a part of the entire rest of your life.
Finally, be a part of figuring out how to improve our communities, our City, how to solve these seemingly intractable problems. It has taken a few generations for us – the grown-ups – to make lots of decisions that have gotten us to where we are now. It is likely to take a few generations of smart, dedicated folks – like you - making the right decisions to get us out of these troubles. It is not going to be easy. But if YOU dedicate yourself to this work, I feel confident that your children will live in an even better City than we are giving to you. So I guess I am, metaphorically, giving YOU the keys to the City.