2013 Commencement Address by Diane Dalto Woosnam:
Good Afternoon. It is truly a privilege to be here today to receive an honorary degree from Rosemont College. I would like to thank President Hirsh and the board of trustees of the College for this honor.
What a tremendous compliment it is to be asked to speak to you on this very important, in fact, momentous occasion.
Not only is it Rosemont’s 90th commencement, but also the commencement for the inaugural co-ed class at Rosemont. This is truly a day to celebrate.
It’s particularly poignant for me because 25 years ago I was the Director of Institutional Advancement and I helped plan the commencement activities. I also congratulated the new graduates, some of whom may actually be your parents!
When I look back, I’m so grateful for those years at Rosemont. I made lifelong friendships and developed a profound respect for the teaching, mentoring, and most importantly, the values that are the culture of Rosemont.
I hope you fully understand what a wise decision you made coming to Rosemont and that you’ve become part of a very special and supportive community. No matter where you go or what you do in life, you’ll always benefit from the strong, balanced foundation laid for you here at Rosemont. And now, no matter where you go or what you do, you’ll join the ranks of other distinguished alumni who proudly identify themselves as Rosemonsters.
In thinking about what to talk to you about today, of what pearls of wisdom to offer you, I thought it best to stick with what I know best, and through which I have found whatever wisdom I can now claim. And that is the Arts.
We often take for granted so much of the art and culture that surround us…the public art that is ubiquitous throughout our region; several of the greatest museums in the world, a choice of dozens of different theatrical events that take place on our many regional stages every night, a myriad of dance companies performing inside, outside, and in unexpected places, a world class science museum, music, opera and ballet at the Academy of Music, the Kimmel Center and the Mann Music Center, poetry and literary readings at our libraries, one of the world’s greatest Zoos, festivals celebrating music and performance from around the world, pop-up performances, children learning about and experiencing great music, art and literature in our schools…..the list of artistic offerings goes on and on.
Wait a minute…..did I say children learning about great music, art and literature in our schools?? Think again.
Of course, painters will always paint, poets will always write poems, musicians will always play music, but unless we value the arts as an essential part of an education, an essential part of a life, it will be less and less accessible, more and more expensive, and a greatly diminished part of our everyday lives.
For the last four decades, arts education in schools has been declining. Many public schools have little if any arts education. The shortsightedness of this policy is mindboggling. It’s been shown time and again, that early exposure to music and the visual arts fosters a child’s later ability to excel in math, literature and social skills.
A culture that doesn’t value the arts and doesn’t cultivate an appreciation for it in its young people will eventually realize a decline, not only in new exciting work, but in the strength of its neighborhoods, the vitality of its cities and the quality of life of every citizen.
But let’s drill down. The Philadelphia region boasts literally hundreds of arts organizations, and counts those arts organizations as essential to attracting residents, tourists and new businesses. Our region is banking so much of its future on its arts institutions, it is critical to insure that upcoming generations will be able to appreciate and support the arts.
To put it in perspective, for all you sports fans, of which I am one, what would happen to the NFL or the NBA if schools eliminated sports? We simply wouldn’t let that happen.
And, Philadelphia, and the surrounding counties weren’t always as aware of the economic development potential of the arts as we are today. In fact, twenty years ago, we were struggling to figure out where we were going as a region. The city was a mess.
An advertising agency actually produced a slogan for billboards that said “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” Visitors read those billboards on their way into the city from the airport. Yes, it’s true, times were tough.
Factories, once the lifeblood of northeastern cities, were long gone and the neighborhoods that were home to generations of workers were in free-fall. The streets were dirty. Fear of crime made suburbanites hesitant to go downtown. And city residents were moving to the suburbs in droves.
And there wasn’t much reason to go downtown. There was the beautiful Academy of Music, but very few theatres were still open. What a tragedy, given the fact that Philadelphia, just a few decades earlier, had been the biggest theatre town outside of NY.
There was the great Philadelphia Museum of Art, but there were many more struggling art centers hanging on by a thread. Our once great opera and ballet companies were struggling mightily. There was a sense that our best days were behind us and that big urban areas no longer worked. It wasn’t just here. Cities across the country were trying to figure out ways to become relevant and livable again.
By the early 90’s, the city was desperate for change. Ed Rendell became the newly elected Mayor largely on his promise of vision and change. He knew there was no way to bring back our industrial past, so a new identity and new industries needed to be sought.
Almost immediately, he saw that we had two great, distinguishing assets that, with a little polishing up and about $500 million in investment, could lead us to a bright future. So we turned to those two great undisputed, but underappreciated, assets, Art and History.
The revitalization plan was built entirely around these assets, which through good times and bad had managed to survive. Now it was time for them to thrive. The Avenue of the Arts was born.
The Kimmel Center and numerous theatres were built. Hotels, condominiums, apartment complexes, restaurants and shops filled in the empty lots on the Avenue.
Independence Mall was pretty much leveled and rebuilt to actually interpret the amazing history that took place there. A new visitor center, a Liberty Bell pavilion, a recreation of the first President’s house and a Constitution Center completed that picture.
Today, Center City Philadelphia is experiencing tremendous population growth for the first time in 50 years. Old factory neighborhoods are quickly becoming fashionable communities attracting young families, single professionals and artists!
New Yorkers jokingly refer to Philadelphia as New York’s sixth borough because of the numbers of NY based artists, actors and writers who are moving here.
They’re moving to Passyunk, Kensington, Fishtown, Northern Liberties and Fairmount, places that were approaching ghost town status just 25 years ago. Those neighborhoods now boast chic restaurants, galleries, community art centers and boutiques.
By the way, I should mention that in 1992, I left this beautiful Rosemont campus and joined the Rendell administration to spearhead the Avenue of the Arts and the revitalization of neighborhood art centers throughout the city.
Those were heady days with all of the planning and construction. The corporate and foundation buy-in was amazing. We started a city sponsored Cultural Fund to support all of the arts and cultural organizations in the city.
We started the Marian Anderson Award to celebrate artists who took moral stands that oftentimes put their careers at risk. And we cleaned our dirty streets. City dwellers, suburbanites and tourists began to enjoy all the new and revitalized arts offerings.
And while we shamelessly exploited the arts for their economic development, tourism generating and job creating potential, we never lost sight of the arts’ true and most important potential….the quality of life of our citizens.
The arts bridge the gap between centuries, between cultures and between generations and even between neighborhoods. Today, across the country, city officials and police are working with, and depend upon, neighborhood arts centers to diffuse tensions and settle disputes between racially, ethnically and culturally divided groups.
And there are instances when the interaction has led to more than just peaceful co-existence. It's led to music, dance, theatre, literary and mural projects with the groups working together.
The Arts are shelter from turmoil and a call to action. They touch your heart and amaze you with the power of human creativity. It is hard to calculate the impact art can have on the life of a country, a region, a city, a neighborhood, and a child.
Please know this….creativity is your birthright. It is an outlet, a way to communicate when other means fail, a way to solve problems, a way to exercise your freedom of speech and a means to pursue happiness. For some of you it is….a job!
But you don’t have to be a great creator of art for art to be an important part of your life. I, like you, chose to attend a small liberal arts college. And a word about liberal arts colleges...They prepare you for anything and everything.
You learn to think with a broad base of knowledge. In economic times, such as these, and it was just as challenging in 1973 when I graduated, it’s good to be open to unanticipated opportunities and go for them. I was offered my first job on the train from NY to Philadelphia. Timing and flexibility are everything. And a seat next to someone with a job to offer doesn’t hurt.
From the time when I was a child, growing up in Paoli, I loved theatre. I’m thankful that my mother regularly took my brothers and sisters and me to live theatre, and maybe as a result of that, I minored in theatre in college. I firmly believe that had Meryl Streep not been a couple of years ahead of me, she wouldn’t have gotten all those roles meant for me.
But in truth, I am without talent. I can’t sing, I’m a klutz on the dance floor, I can’t paint or sculpt and I’m not going to write the next great American novel. But I, like those of you who aren’t going to make their living on the stage or on the walls of galleries, have much to offer and much to gain.
I am so lucky to be given the opportunity to support those who are talented. Nothing has given me greater pleasure than being a part of Philadelphia’s renaissance.
I know there are lots of talented artists here today who will surely make their mark in the art world, but for the rest of you, I urge you to volunteer, subscribe, attend, and listen. Make the arts a part of your everyday life. You get back more than you give.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to have been a part of the beginning of the revitalization of Philadelphia have all moved on. We planted seeds of hope throughout the city and we are truly amazed at the results that continue to multiply.
Many others have since made huge contributions to the culture of our city and more people are joining the effort every day. Philadelphia and our region have never been more vibrant.
One way the health of cities is judged is by their ability to keep the young people who graduate from their colleges and universities in their region. We’re doing pretty well.
I am sure you have all been in the city on a beautiful week-end and seen the parks overflowing with young people and families with small children. The restaurants and clubs are jammed. The streets are alive with theatre and concert goers. I hope you will be among them when you make decisions about your future home.
You are our region’s future. No one is better prepared to contribute to the well-being of our region than you. Rosemont has provided you with all the tools necessary to be successful and to contribute to a moral and value based society.
It is your responsibility to assure that future generations have the tools they need. It is the Rosemont way.
I recently came upon a poem from a friend of mine that puts it so much better than I can and by someone with far more gravitas. It’s called “A Step Along the Way” and I chose just a few lines to share with all of you. It was written by a Catholic Bishop, Ken Untener:
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
This is what we are all about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds that are already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need future development.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, a beginning, a step along the way.
We may never see the end results.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”
You count. You have it within your power to make a difference. You are a step along the way to a better world. Rosemont prepared you to be one of the good guys.
In closing, I’m going to quote the words of the writer, Neil Gaiman from his commencement address at the University of the Arts last year. When someone says it perfectly, it bears repeating. This is my advice to you.
“And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being there.”