Commencement Address 2012

Alumnus Rob Gibson addresses the graduating class of 2012

UGA alum Rob Gibson was kind enough to return to campus to address our graduates at Commencement 2012. Currently the Executive and Artistic Director of the Savannah Music Festival, Gibson is as the founding director of "Jazz at Lincoln Center" in New York City, which during his 10 years of service grew into one of the most successful and "prestigious organizations of its kind in the world" (Times of London). Working with Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, Rob created and produced programs in more than 30 countries. A 1981 graduate of UGA, Rob Gibson is an active alumnus and supporter.

It is an honor to stand before you this afternoon - a class of 2012 at the University of Georgia. Some of you have spent the past few years working for an undergraduate degree while others have persisted in postgraduate studies, but all of you will be linked by a sheet of paper with a degree placed upon it next to the year 2012.

We now stand upon the threshold of your liberation from this University, and I suspect many of your parents' as well, so congratulations for surviving the trek! You are now part of a continuum, and your graduation today affirms the hopes, dreams and labors of the people who raised you, the educators who instructed you, and the alumni who came before you - all of whom are part of this continuum. You have also realized your promise to yourself, and completed a segment of what was once only a dream that you had.

Some of you studied the history of art, while others spent your time in the studio molding clay, painting, sculpting, illustrating or taking photographs. A few of you pursued fabric, graphic or interior design, while a portion of you learned enough about all of these subjects to teach others about art. It is ART that connects all of you today, but it is the ARTS that have connected all of us across time.

The arts encompass the visual arts, but also include the literary arts and the performing arts - music, theatre, dance and film, among others. So as students of art, you are now a member of a vast subdivision of culture, composed of many creative endeavors and disciplines in an even larger world called the arts, which is a very significant and distinguished field.

Sometimes, Americans forget what make the arts important, which is easy to do in a society that is financially driven, that is technologically driven, that is politically driven, and that is entertainment driven. But what the arts do - and they do this to individuals, they do this in education, and they do this in communities - is they awaken us to the full potential of our own humanity.

Art delights, it instructs, it consoles, and in the process, it educates our emotions. And art remembers. It allows us to experience a wealth of sensibilities regardless of whether that art comes from our own culture or it originated in another land, or even another period in history. And art always remind us of how things have been, how things are, and how things could be.

In just a few more days, after this celebratory occasion wears off, many of you will be saying, "can I really give this art thing a go out here?" Others of you will simply be asking yourself, "what the heck am I going to do now?" If you turn on the news, you'll hear about how the vast majority of college graduates have had to work unpaid internships, or that young adults are finding a workplace that is paying lower wages, if they can find work at all. You might even hear that everyone currently emerging into the workplace will be economically scarred for life by the misfortune of their timing, because the initial wage loss for a twenty-one-year-old starting a job today is about 24 percent less than he or she would have received five years ago.

Of course, those will make great excuses for you to use with your family and friends, telling them that the marketplace just doesn't have enough available positions at present. But trust me when I tell you that excuse will have a limited lifespan. And it will be exponentially shortened for those of you who decide to live at home with your folks.

So I would urge you to remember some timeless principles that the marketplace has never affected. I'm talking about the way people laugh, the way they love, and the way they dream. While it is guaranteed that there will be hardship in your future, how you endure that hardship will be a sign of your character, and an important trait in forging your own style. I'm not talking about your style in art, but your style in life. So my first bit of advice is to make sure that you laugh hard, love a lot and dream big. Persevere with style.

Unless you're thinking about more school, welcome to the real world. If you haven't found out already, it's a cold and cruel place. Sometimes it's just a lowdown, dirty shame. But you're still part of the continuum, albeit a different one. You know the road that you've traveled thus far in life, and now it's simply time for you to connect those dots, and declare what you want to be. By doing that, you can contribute to the collective dream of who we are, and what we can become. Because we really are all in this together.

I was in exactly the same position as you 31 years ago. I basically learned how to do what I do for a living right here in Athens, as a student at the University of Georgia. And because I've spent most of my life working in the arts, my comments today about the relevance that the arts continue to play in the world today are a rooted in my own real world experience within them, and my belief in Andre Malraux's statement that "the arts are fundamental equipment for living."

I was one of those students that casually navigated what is commonly known as "the five year plan." So whenever I talk about my senior year, my dad always asks, "which one?" When I finally graduated at this University in 1981, I had no idea that I could, or would, still be programming and producing musical events for a living at the age of 53. But it was here in Athens that I became consumed with my life's work while running the student radio station and working on the concert committee in the late 1970s. I attended class, but in time, it became clear the courses that intrigued me the most were the ones that seemed least connected to the job market, such as Philosophy, Political Science, Religion and Art History.

However, when class was over each day, nothing thrilled me more than hiking up those six floors to the top of Memorial Hall into the offices of WUOG-FM, where I immersed myself in a world of creativity, assembling radio programs and conceptual ideas that combined language, sounds, history and beauty. It paid absolutely no money, but it made me feel so completely alive. It was then that I said: "man, I got to figure out a way to get paid to do this."

Then came graduation, and the reality of my father, who informed me, in no uncertain terms: "Son, I'm glad you enjoyed the radio station and music so much in college, but those are avocations - now it's time to get a vocation." That was the cold, harsh reality of life hitting me right in the face. So I spent the next six years trying to erase the "a" in avocation and make it my vocation. In the meantime, I sucked it up and succumbed to a variety of vocations that primarily included sales jobs, where I pushed office supplies, printing, and software to anyone who would buy them. It wasn't always easy, and it wasn't particularly fun a lot of the time, but it built a lot of character.

Along the way, on the side, I founded my own not-for-profit organization at age 25, because I knew that if I gave up on my pursuit of remaining in the arts, it meant failure. I've always been competitive by nature, and I was determined to succeed, which to me simply meant trusting my heart and pursuing what I wanted to do, always knowing in the back of my mind, that I'd eventually figure out a way to get paid for it.

It took until I was 29 to quit my day job and pursue an arts career full time, finally turning my avocation into my vocation. Within two years, I got hired to create a jazz program at the world's largest performing arts institution, Lincoln Center, at the corner of 65th and Broadway in New York City. No one had ever done this job before because it didn't exist, so there was no one to teach me how to do it. There were no "how-to" manuals or books to read. There were no arts administration classes. There were no six-week online postgraduate studies programs. In fact, there was no such thing as online.

It was a brand new position, so I could either make it up as I went along, or I could study as much as possible on my own and prepare myself for the opportunity. I began reading all of the history books about how and why Lincoln Center was founded, and I investigated the backgrounds and accounts of the many organizations that comprised Lincoln Center including the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, the Lincoln Center Theater, The Juilliard School, the Film Society, and others, some of which were over 100 years old. I realized that if we were going to one day become like them, it would have to come from a well-conceived strategic plan, and that was my charge.

Thus, my second bit of advice to you today is as follows: just because you're getting out of school and need to find a job doesn't mean that the education process is over. You are now your own teacher and the one who decides what to study. It means you'll have to create your own syllabus, but you won't be wasting time on compulsory subjects and you won't need to take exams because you are in control of your own progress and objectives. You will have to read a lot, and you'll have to seek out people who know more about subjects than you do in order to learn, but you can now fully enjoy all of your educational pursuits. So continue your education on your own.

Having never lived in New York, I was trying to garner a bit more confidence and a lot more experience in about six weeks time. As I began laying out the vision for what Jazz at Lincoln Center might be, I realized that I did actually have 31 years of life experience. I simply needed to connect the dots. I remembered my years of piano lessons; getting bussed to hear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra every year with my elementary school; growing up in a home with parents who listened to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington; singing in the church choir throughout high school; studying the Declaration of Independence and the foundation of American democracy; hiring bands to play at the fraternity house; running the student radio station on this campus; serving as a guest instructor in the Music School at UGA; analyzing the history of labor unions as a Political Science major; making cold calls in person and on the telephone in various sales jobs; losing $10,0000 on a concert because we didn't market the event adequately to sell enough tickets; dealing with the bureaucracy of the Atlanta City Government to plan an outdoor jazz festival in a public park; being responsible for every line item in a $500,000 budget; reporting to people with giant egos who weren't very nice; and a whole lot more.

Suddenly, it became clear to me that my primary goal had always been to bring the transformative power of great art to the broadest audience possible. That's what I was doing when I ran the student radio station in college, and while directing a not-for profit organization, and when leading the City of Atlanta Jazz festival. It was exactly what I wanted to do and I had the tools for it. So, my third bit of advice is to connect the dots from your own experience. Some of you may be ready to do that now, while for others it may take a few more years, but eventually they will manifest themselves as plain as day, and shine a light on your path.

We named our organization Jazz at Lincoln Center, and it took a lot of hard work across ten years to grow it into the foremost jazz organization in the world. We stayed true to our vision, expanding it with each passing year, and by the time I left, we had more than 50 full-time employees and an annual budget of nearly $10 million. We were also attempting to raise $128 million to build the first-ever home for a performing arts institution dedicated to jazz music, which now exists at Columbus Circle. Along that same stretch, I spent nine years teaching the history of American music at The Juilliard School, primarily in an effort to get a jazz program implemented there, which occurred in 1999.

As you might imagine, a lot of resumes came my way during this time, and rarely a week went by without reading several dozen of them. I saw hundreds upon hundreds of resumes, many from recent college graduates with little or no experience. But I have always paid extra special attention to "cover letters" that accompany a resume. Believe me when I say that you can have very little experience, but you can write an incredible cover letter. That is, if you can write.

Unlike my generation, you grew up in an era of mobile phones and text messaging. That has meant that your peers communicate in very different ways than we did, sometimes texting one another across the room during class. This is not a judgment on my part - it is simply a reminder that clear language is paramount to the integrity of any issue. Your words have value and you must therefore insist on an integrity of language for yourself in everyday life. Your words have meaning. And meaning is connected to contact. And contact is how you communicate.

Now, when you're hunting for a job in the months ahead, you're not necessarily going to be able to communicate directly with a potential employer, although you can contact them, usually via the mail. So it's important that you know how to use words, which means you need to know how to write. Some of you may be excellent writers, but my guess is that the majority of you aren't as adept at writing as you should be. So my fourth bit of advice is to work on your writing skills. If you're already a good writer, you can improve. If you're not a good writer, start becoming more competent now. It might take several years and possibly longer to become a really accomplished writer, but it's a tool that will make you a better communicator in all aspects of life.

I have always loved many genres of music, including symphonic and chamber music, blues, bluegrass, gospel, Cajun, Zydeco and a variety of international musical styles that come from countries all over this planet. Since I was looking to get out of New York and had always wanted to direct a music festival, a friend of mine at the Georgia Council for the Arts told me that there was a struggling, little music festival in Savannah that might take a few years to turn around.

Ten years later, it's now the largest music festival in Georgia, with a full-time staff of ten, an annual budget of more than $3 million, and an event that regularly receives a wealth of acclaim from a variety of international publications. My title is Executive & Artistic Director, which means that I'm in charge of programming the festival - the artistic side - and I'm also responsible for the finance, marketing, fundraising, production and education areas. Ultimately, it's about leading a team of people and maintaining a distinct vision, which requires imagination.

Now, we all know that adult life begins in a child's imagination, yet we live in a country that has turned that imagination over to the marketplace. And the marketplace does only one thing -- it puts a price on everything. The role of the arts and culture, however, must go beyond economics. They are not focused on the price of things, but on their value. That's why arts education is at the heart of the Savannah Music Festival's mission. We know that students who participate in the arts learn the value of creativity, teamwork and self-expression. Our Festival produces educational initiatives that include family-friendly performances, master classes, workshops, lectures and music education concerts. This year, we will reach more than 21,000 children through these programs.

Let me be clear in stating that the purpose of this type of education is not to produce more artists, though a few might come out of it. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society. Because if our country is to compete effectively with the rest of the world in the global marketplace, this country needs creativity, ingenuity and innovation. And real innovation doesn't just come from technology -- it comes from places like art and design. Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world -- equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods.

So now I've come full circle: from a child who was bussed to hear musical concerts to an adult working to keep that practice alive and well; from a student at this great University to an alumni and a parent, welcoming the next graduating class to the continuum. You're in the real world now, so it is your responsibility to connect your own dots while continuing to educate yourself. Be sure to persevere through all of it with style.