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Spring 2019 Commencement at VCUarts Qatar: "The Power of What If"

May 6, 2019
Doha, Qatar

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, families, colleagues, and graduates. Provost Hackett. Dean Brixey. Executive Dean Baker. It’s great to be with you in Doha and to bring greetings from your colleagues and classmates in Richmond and your VCU family around the world.

Ramadan Mubarak. May this month be blessed for all of us.

Congratulations to our Class of 2019. You join almost 200,000 VCU alumni, including nearly 700 alumni of VCUArts Qatar living and creating around the world. I am so proud of you. You are creative scholars who embody the very best of our university and illuminate the very meaning of our humanity. I know you will use your vast talents to benefit humankind. I know you will inspire all of us at a time when we need inspiration. I know you will not only make art, but also make a difference.

If this seems overwhelming right now, well, just remember that you started in exactly the right place. Your alma mater is the very story of creative innovation and success. Twenty years ago, VCUarts Qatar was only a brilliant idea brought forward by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Kahlifa al Thani and Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al Missned. They wanted to bring Qatar a world-class arts education. They had the courage to ask…what if!

What if we bring the world’s top-ranked public school of the arts to Qatar?
What if we make the exceptional more accessible?
What if we transform our peninsular state into a crucible of imagination?

Well, only two decades later, their wisdom, VCU’s distinction, and your talent have come together to play a major role in transforming Doha into a creative capital on par with any place in any region.

Qatar was once known for pearl diving. Today, it’s known for artistic ingenuity. This is what asking “what if” can do for you.

I want to tell you about a man named George Lois. He was a giant in the field of marketing who helped trigger America’s advertising boom of the 1960s, selling global brands like Xerox and running political campaigns for Robert Kennedy. For more than a decade, he served as art director of Esquire magazine. The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan exhibited 90 of his iconic magazine covers a few years ago. Some people think he inspired the long-running hit television show “Mad Men.”

George Lois made his mark in the art world because he was fearlessly imaginative. His mantra was, and I quote, “There is no such thing as a cautious creative.”

So what can we learn from George Lois?

Well, for one, that big ideas need big passion. You can’t dip your toes into rushing waters; you have to hoist your sails.

The human experience moves by innovation. Innovation moves by creativity. Indeed, we cannot fully understand who we are as humans without considering our creative minds. Some ancient philosophers — Plato among them — saw life as some kind of artistic performance. The concept of “self” emerged from that performance. To them, creativity was not a virtue. It was the very nature of identity, of human existence.

Nothing’s changed. Creativity is still the heartbeat of humanity. It is the lens through which we see the invisible. It is the ingenuity that lets us conceive what the world could be, so we can make it better for all.

Creativity is the intrinsic power of “what if.”

You know, artists have ALWAYS asked “what if!”

Art was central to the expansion of the Abbasid Caliphate, and asking “what if” led us to revolutions in ceramics and textiles — and in science, mathematics, and medicine in ways that continue to shape and save and signify our lives a millennium later. Our earliest colleges and libraries rose up during the Abbasid, seismically shifting human progress and prospective. All because 1,200 years ago in Qatar and elsewhere, the Abbasids asked “what if.”

A century ago in Germany, Walter Gropius opened the Bauhaus — literally, “the building house” — not to build edifices but ideas and ultimately movements. At the same time, the art of Sergei Eisenstein, Kazimir Malevich, and others helped bring political renewal to Russia.

More recently, art has become a tool to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Within your lifetimes, artists asking “what if” — and then creating what may be — have transformed continents, have amplified voices never heard, have forever bent the arc of social justice. The sterling new Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU — your alma mater — opened last year with an exhibit called “Declaration,” which explored some of these themes.

In Paleolithic caves, and Renaissance cathedrals, and urbane studios and laboratories, artists have always been humanity’s voice in asking “what if….”

“What if I create something never before imagined by anyone?
What if it changes everything we know to be true?
What if we think differently about what’s possible for any of us? Or all of us?”

Time and again, art has defined and then transformed the human experience. It has helped us ask … “what if.” And then make what could be.

As I close, I want to share one more story with you.

For most of his life, the great American gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe lived in Richmond. His mother was an actress who performed in a theater that stood on the edge of what’s now VCU’s medical campus. Young Edgar would swim in the James River that’s in the heart of our city and return to his home at 13th and Main streets. He worshipped in an Episcopal church that still stands downtown, and he wrote his famed love poem, “To Helen,” about a Richmond woman, the mother of his childhood friend.

Poe was also a brilliant philosopher of the human mind, and he understood unmistakably the potential that’s inherent within each one of us. Consider, for example, this line from his most famous work, “The Raven”:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.

That’s another way of saying “what if…,” isn’t it?

Class of 2019, keep peering into that darkness. Keep wondering…keep fearing…keep doubting. Keep dreaming dreams no one ever dared dream before.

Keep asking yourself...“what if?”

It’s the way to great art. And more, it’s the path of human progress.

Shukran. Thank you.

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