One of the last projects the great Milton Glaser—the legendary graphic designer, longtime School of Visual Arts faculty member and acting chairman of the SVA Board—was working on before his death last year was “Together,” an effort to encourage fellow feeling despite the isolation brought on by COVID-19. As always, Glaser was reminding us of our shared humanity, which transcends borders, circumstances and physical space. And while we weren’t together in person to celebrate the School of Visual Arts’ 46th annual commencement exercises, in spirit, we were. The 2021 Commencement—which took place online today, May 23, via a video simulcast on SVA’s website and Facebook page—was still a celebration and show of community honoring the achievements, resilience and promise of this year’s graduates.
This year’s SVA Commencement was the second to be held online. President David Rhodes conferred bachelor’s and master’s degrees on some 1,000 newly minted alumni; 2021 graduates of the College’s BFA Interior Design and MFA Art Writing programs delivered addresses; the College honored Milton Glaser’s life and work with a video tribute; and artist and MFA Fine Arts faculty member Marilyn Minter gave a forthright and inspiring keynote speech.
“It would appear that your futures as artists, designers, teachers, and writers will be challenging but rewarding, [and] you have acquitted yourselves with distinction under unique and trying circumstances,” President Rhodes said in his speech. “I would suggest … that what you will for yourself, you should be willing and wishing for the rest of us. Be kind to one another. After all, kindness is what each of us ultimately wants.”
SVA Provost Dr. Christopher Cyphers, who acted as the director of ceremonies, also commemorated the graduates’ accomplishments despite the continuing toll of the pandemic. “Although this has been a year like no other in perhaps a century, you nevertheless managed to persevere, push ahead, and despite the remarkable obstacles you have all had to overcome, completed your SVA degree,” he said.
BFA Interior Design: Built Environments graduate Fuad Khazam, one of the event’s two degree-candidate speakers, used his time at the virtual podium to discuss the experiences that brought him to SVA: a refugee, leaving his home of Syria, which continues to be beset by a years-long civil war, to further his education. “SVA became my new home away from home and an extended family,” he said. “I’m incredibly honored to have completed my education here with the support and guidance given by SVA staff and professors to whom I thank.”
MFA Art Writing graduate Kate Brock, who gave the master’s degree candidate address, spoke about the existential difficulty of the last year and how the College’s sense of community helped her endure. “Against the backdrop of enormous loss, which this year has meant for so many of us, art feels like a fragile, futile, tendril persistence,” she said. “What has seen me through and goaded me on to bright and direct engagement with the world is the support of fellow artists, teachers and writers, which I have found in my peers at SVA.”
As the evening’s anticipated keynote speaker, Marilyn Minter delivered an address that was blunt, irreverent and hopeful, addressing our collective struggles head-on. “I recognize your accomplishments in this most difficult year,” she said. “You have earned all our admiration.” She admitted to being “shocked” when she was invited to deliver the address. “I was never the person voted ‘most likely to succeed,’” she said, smiling. “I was always a disruptor and a troublemaker.”
Minter spoke about her own biography—the various ups and downs that led to her thriving art career, her long tenure on the SVA faculty (35 years and counting) and the discovery of what she says every artist should strive for: her “authentic voice.”
“Don’t try to follow the movement of the moment,” she said, citing examples of when she lost her way, trying to capture the zeitgeist and not listening to herself. “Make your work from your truth. Trust your inner voice even when you’re insecure and have no confidence.”
“Most art has to fail before it succeeds,” she continued. “Remember that failure and rejections are your teachers. Take that risk, follow that instinct. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience.”
True to her reputation as a dedicated human-rights activist, Minter suggested that while we’ve collectively endured great suffering and been witness to grave injustice over the past several years, a better world is possible, though it is our shared obligation to make it a reality.
“We are artists, and it is our responsibility to break the rules,” she said. “It’s part of the creative process. Change is in the air. Your generation can come out of this awful period and change the world. It takes creative people, inventive people like you, to make great art, find solutions and lead the way. Silence is no longer an option. I’m counting on you.”
For more about the 2021 SVA Commencement Exercises, the virtual ceremony, how graduates can get their diplomas, and other graduation-related topics, visit sva.edu/commencement. To watch Minter’s full keynote speech, and watch some additional highlights, click the videos below.
Congratulations to the SVA Class of 2021!