President Beal: Commencement 2017 Speech

Photo of CCA's Commencement 2017President Stephen Beal delivers his commencement speech.

This speech was delivered by President Stephen Beal on May 13, 2017, at Nourse Auditorium.

Students, parents and family members, distinguished guests, alumni, trustees, faculty, and staff, welcome to California College of the Arts 110th Commencement Exercises. I’m Steve Beal, president of CCA.

To the Class of 2017 . . .

We are here today to celebrate one of the most significant passages in your lives—the culmination of your hard work and persistence. We’re proud of your accomplishments and eagerly anticipate your future success. And we are truly honored to share this day with you.

Traditionally, at the beginning of our ceremony, we take a moment to reflect on endings, to remember those members of our community who have passed away since we were last convened. In your program we have listed their names. We pause here for a moment to honor them because they are part of our creative community and heritage. We remember and cherish our teachers, friends, and colleagues¾creative people who have shaped the world and changed the lives of those around them. Please join me in a moment of silence for those we have lost this year.

Thank you.


It’s been a remarkable year (to put it mildly!). I think I can say that without being accused of engaging in even the slightest bit of hyperbole.

I can’t remember witnessing such a dramatic shift in our politics and culture -- and I came of age in the 1960s!  For you, the class of 2017, I can only imagine how jarring it must be when so much of your political experience has been informed by eight years of the Obama administration.  What a harsh reversal we see today!

In the last year, we’ve seen so much that we hold dear come under attack -- the arts, education, science, women’s rights, healthcare, freedom of religion, the environment, the LGBTQ community, and more.

It’s so easy to get caught up in this highly-charged and divisive political environment. Fake news, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle amplify and distort the rhetoric -- distracting us, feeding our fears, and further dividing our country.

So today, as we come together to celebrate this major milestone in your life, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of why we’re here. Let’s remember the importance of the arts and acknowledge the powerful and positive role that artists, architects, designers, writers, and curators play in our society.

As makers, we all know from firsthand experience that creative work opens our eyes to the world in a way that nothing else can. Art can compel and challenge us to think in different ways. It can expand critical thinking, confront the status quo, and inspire change. It can also cause discomfort: artists and designers often push the boundaries of society’s conventions.

Throughout history, creative people have demonstrated the ability to influence and change our world in powerful and memorable ways. Goya’s The Disaster’s of War, Picasso’s Guernica or Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series all come to mind.  And just think of the sustained ethical provocations of the Guerilla Girls or the socially impactful work of Theaster Gates or Rick Lowe.  Films, books and theatrical productions such as An Inconvenient Truth; George Orwell’s 1984,  or Tony Kushner’s  Angels in America have deeply influenced our society.  Designers like Charles and Ray Eames or Jeanne Gang, the Mac Arthur award-winning architect working on our SF campus, have profoundly changed the way we see and interact with the world.

When I went to art school in the 1960s I made a conscious decision to pursue a creative life –- I wanted to see and think and feel the world through the lens of art. A few years ago, you, too, made a similar decision to follow your passion to CCA in order to explore the full spectrum of theory, practices, and creation.

During my own art school years, the Vietnam War profoundly shaped my experience and demanded an active response. It became a second lens through which to view creative life and forced me to question the responsibilities of the artist as citizen. The war and the social upheaval of the 1960s had a profound influence on my work and the work of my peers. It also expanded our understanding of what art can be and what art can do.

CCA’s own history is rooted in social change. The school was born out of the Arts and Crafts Movement, whose practitioners sought to eliminate the traditional boundaries among fine art, design, and craft. They believed that connecting the arts to social, economic, and political life would deepen the power of creative work while making a positive contribution to the community in which that work was taking place. This was radically different from the traditional approach of an academy that aimed to isolate the artist from society.

CCA’s founding ideals -- now more than a century old -- seem even more relevant today during this turbulent time.  

The question before you now -- which everyone will ask you the minute this ceremony is over -- that question is: what are you going to do? How are you going to create meaning in the world? How are you going to leverage your skills to bring about change? How are you going to make a difference?

This can seem overwhelming, but it’s important to remember that you do have choices.

You could decide to take a radical approach. Devote all your creative energy towards an issue that you care deeply about. Create a compelling series of work, start a movement, form an organization, curate an exhibition. With your skills and experience, you have the power to make an important issue visible and inspire others to act.

Some of you may discover that your best choice is to promote change from within. You are the next generation of thinkers and makers who have benefitted from learning at a college that values social and environmental responsibility. You could be an agent for change within an organization or company and develop solutions that have a global impact.

Still another choice would be to use your talents to bring people together, to collaborate and problem-solve. In your time here you’ve no doubt developed relationships with people who have influenced and inspired you. Those associations may lead to something far greater than what you can accomplish on your own. 

There’s no template for success. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that things change—sometimes radically and rapidly. But you’re prepared. You know from your time at CCA that the creative process is highly flexible and adaptable. Research, experiment, make, test, fail, iterate, and repeat, if needed. 

Whatever path you choose, I hope that you will continue to pursue your passion and believe in yourself.  You have developed the skills, the ingenuity, and the connections to make a real impact.

You are now part of CCA’s legacy of art and social change. And the world needs you—artists, architects, designers, curators, and writers--now more than ever.

We need you to take what you’ve learned here at CCA to work across disciplines, across diverse strands of society, and across political divisions.

We need you to use your power and creative capital to boldly confront the issues before us and find ways to make a difference.

Simply put, we need you to change the world.


To the Class of 2017 . . .

I congratulate you on your accomplishments and for taking this important step toward the future . . .

Before we move on, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge some very special people.

Your professors, the extraordinary faculty of California College of the Arts, have worked tirelessly to inspire and guide you. As you make your way in the world, I hope you will remember the inspirational teaching of your faculty. Make them proud, and join me now in thanking them, your teachers and mentors, for all they have done for you.