This May is Ruby Lerner’s final month as Executive Director of Creative Capital. How fitting that, this month, she also received honorary degrees and delivered the commencement addresses at two major art school graduations: first at Maine College of Art (MECA), and then at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). As Ruby “graduates” from Creative Capital, we wanted to share some of her advice to the MECA and MICA undergrads with artists in our community.
At Maine College of Art, Ruby’s speech centered around community: the people and the places artists need to thrive. She began:
I am here because I made a “fake” commencement address at a conference, and the wonderful folks here at MECA said, come make a real one. So here I am. But I know that I am really here because of Creative Capital, the organization I helped to found and have headed for 17 years. Creative Capital was set up in 1999 to see if venture capital approaches could be adapted to the support of groundbreaking artists. We have designed a support system that combines money with a whole range of additional support and services. One of the signature aspects of our approach is a focus on community building—nurturing the community of funded artists and building bridges between those artists and a vast network of arts professionals.
One of the things I have witnessed first-hand at Creative Capital is the power of “community.” We all use that word often; sometimes we are referring to people and sometimes to place. I want to talk about both: who and what you will need as you move forward, but also what your communities, of people and place, will need—and should expect—from you.
Your primary community is right here, beside you today. It includes your family, friends and fellow graduates; you will be a support network for each other throughout your lives. The MECA faculty and administration care a lot about your future; they will be here for you as well. So you start your post MECA life well fortified. As your practice matures you will also need a bevy of professionals on your “team,” people like lawyers, PR people, tech experts, business and financial planners. And you will need to proactively build your own audiences, your very own individual base of support. This is your responsibility as an artist….
But beyond the people you need around you, there is place. What should you be looking for as you decide where to make a home, whether temporary or permanent?
A lot of civic thinking has gone into promoting “the arts” in communities across the country. But support for “the arts” and support for “living artists” are not the same thing. James Baldwin said, “Everybody wants an artist on the wall or on the library shelf, but nobody wants one in the house.”
Perhaps we should judge the cultural health of a community by how well it supports its contemporary creative voices, its “human” institutions, how successfully it “puts artists in the house.”
Read Ruby’s full MECA commencement address here.
At the MICA graduation, Ruby focused on lessons learned in her time at Creative Capital. She began:
Creative Capital is in its 18th year now, and I am on the verge of transitioning out, so I am kind of graduating too. It is a time of reflection for me, and I am grateful to have this opportunity to share some of the things that I have learned in our more than 17 years of working with artists. And I am excited to share some of the issues I am thinking about now.
Inspired by the way that venture capitalists work with young enterprises, at Creative Capital, we have learned that it is critical to help artists think of themselves as small businesses. So, in addition to providing financial and promotional support to the funded projects, I’ve learned that it is important for artists to acquire a set of skills that will be there long after their funder is out of the picture. Plus, it is important to build a personal network of colleagues and professionals that can be accessed throughout an entire career. Artists need a comfort level in essential skills like: building an audience, fundraising, negotiating, dealing with contracts, options for how to structure yourself as a business, speaking about your work in public, having a strong presence on the internet, community engagement strategies.
Ruby went into further detail about the “toolkit” she thinks 21st-century artists need “to tackle community and societal challenges, and to become transformative leaders in your chosen sector.” She concluded with a rallying cry to the MICA grads:
We so need artists with your ability to come at problems from unexpected perspectives, and we need artists with your fearlessness—to not only become central players in the complex world we currently inhabit, but to be the imaginers and inventors of the future. That is the charge and challenge I want to issue to you today.
Ruby Lerner’s MICA commencement speech. She received her honorary doctorate degree alongside Baltimore filmmaker John Waters.
So what’s next for Ruby as she “graduates” from Creative Capital? She reports that she looks forward to consulting and pursuing personal research and writing projects. She also has two academic appointments lined up: Beginning in January 2017, Ruby will be the inaugural Herberger Institute Policy Fellow at Arizona State University and Senior Advisor to the Patty Disney Center for Life and Work at CalArts. Some retirement!
I hope all of you in the Creative Capital community will join me in sending your congratulations and thanks to Ruby for building this fearless and profoundly generous organization. Happy graduation, Dr. Ruby! We can’t wait to see what’s in store as you embark on your next adventure.