Glenn Ligon spoke at The New School’s 2018 commencement on May 18.


A NUMBER OF AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS were declared doctors over the past month. Invited to participate in commencement ceremonies for undergraduate and MFA students at institutions around the country, prominent artists, critics, and curators were bestowed honorary doctorate degrees. Addressing 2018 graduates, they dispatched more than enough wisdom to warrant the distinction.

The terms commitment, vulnerability, doubt and risk were echoed across their remarks. The speakers expounded on their own experiences and emphasized the importance of the graduates believing in their creativity and being engaged in what is going on in the world.

Carrie Mae Weems and Joyce J. Scott addressed students at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Glenn Ligon and Hilton Als were honored by The New School in New York. The University of the Arts in Philadelphia paid tribute to Lorna Simpson. And Kehinde Wiley was recognized at his alma mater, the San Francisco Art Institute.

Spelman College, Prairie View A&M University, Princeton, and Brown University, all invited Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, to participate in their commencements.

Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, was among six recipients of honorary degrees at Columbia University’s commencement on May 16. She received a doctor of humane letters. Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, was also recognized. Gaspard and Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, are important champions of the arts, providing game-changing grant and institutional support. Walker addressed graduates at the Hamilton College commencement in Clinton, N.Y.


Theaster Gates received an honorary doctor of fine arts at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, on May 27, 2018. The Chicago-based artist who was recently appointed to a three-year position at the college as the first distinguished visiting artist and director of artist initiatives, did not make remarks at the commencement. | Video by Colby College


Anita Hill, who teaches law and social policy at Brandeis University has engaged with Mark Bradford in recent years about his artistic practice. The two have explored the social justice and criminal justice issues addressed in his work in public conversations and she contributed to the catalog for his exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Hill spoke at the Rutgers University Law School commencement.

The founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Ala., Bryan Stevenson also comes to the world of art through his law work, which is dedicated to ending mass incarceration. Last year, he helped organize “The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America,” an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. In April, EJI opened two venues—The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice—designed to explore the history of lynching and racial inequality and their relationship to contemporary issues such as criminal justice reform and police violence. Stevenson received honorary degrees during graduation ceremonies at Spelman College, NYU Law School, Johns Hopkins University, and Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

GLENN LIGION TIED HIS COMMENCEMENT REMARKS directly to his work. In 2015, the conceptual artist unveiled “Comrades and Lovers” at the New School. The lavender neon work was inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” When he was asked to do the commission, Ligon said he immediately thought of Whitman, “a poet of democracy, of equality, a poet of and for the future.” Extending 400 feet throughout the Event Cafe in the University Center, the work is the artist’s first-ever permanent art installation.

After receiving an honorary degree at The New School’s commencement on May 18, Ligon’s “short impactful speech” began with Whitman’s words: “No labor-saving machine nor discovery have I made. Nor will I be able to leave behind me any wealthy bequests to found a hospital or library, nor reminiscence of any deed of courage for America, nor literary success, nor intellect, nor book for the bookshelf. Only a few carols vibrating through the air I leave for comrades and lovers.”


After receiving a honorary doctorate of fine arts from The New School on May 18, 2018, Glenn Ligon briefly addressed the graduates at the 2018 commencement. | Video by The New School


When he concluded, the Brooklyn-based artist said, “That was Walt Whitman from the 1900 edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ writing about the gift he will leave us, poems for comrades and lovers.”

Addressing The New School students, Ligon asked: “Here in 2018, as you are about to graduate and make your way in the world, I ask how will you use your gifts and what gift will you leave for the future?”

“Here in 2018, as you are about to graduate and make your way in the world, I ask how will you use your gifts and what gift will you leave for the future?” — Glenn Ligon

Additional honorary degree recipients at 2018 commencements include:

  • Dawoud Bey, Photographer | Columbia College Chicago, May 13
  • Mark Bradford, Artist | Otis College of Art & Design, May 13
  • Ruth Carter, Costume Designer | Hampton University, May 13
  • Wanda Draper, Executive Director of Reginald Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture | St. Mary’s College of Maryland, May 12
  • Theaster Gates, Artist | Colby College, Waterville, Maine, May 27
  • Rashid Johnson, Artist | School of the Art Institute of Chicago, May 14
  • Bobby C. Martin Jr., Founding Partner at Original Champions of Design | Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va., May 12
  • Fred Moten, Poet, Critic, and Scholar | Yale University School of Art, May 21
  • Lynn Nottage, Playwright | Albright College, Reading, Pa., May 19
  • Mabel O. Wilson, Columbia University Professor of Architecture | UC Berkeley, College of Environmental Design, May 13

The following are key highlights from this year’s spring commencements and the insights prominent artists shared with their next generation peers. CT


Lorna Simpson received a honorary doctor of fine arts degree from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia and spoke briefly at the 2018 commencement ceremony on May 10, 2018. | Video by The University of the Arts

Lorna Simpson
The University of the Arts, Philadelphia | May 10, 2018

Prior to the commencement, Lorna Simpson visited many of the numerous departments at The University of the Arts. She met some students and learned about the multifaceted, interdisciplinary education the graduates received. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist then shared in her remarks her own entrée into art, which began early, at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, before she eventually earned a BFA and MFA. Everyday she rode the subway from Hollis, Queens, to the public high school where she was surrounded by a diverse group of kids, all of them artists. “That immersion, at that a young age, let me know I was an artist,” Simpson said. “That immersive experience stayed with me and defined the path I would take.”

She used her own experience as an example of how the graduates might engage with their ideas and approach their artistic practice. “As you leave this tightly knit community you will find that allowing yourself to fully commit to being continuously engaged in this expansive way of thinking will at times take commitment. It will take patience, strength, endurance, the imperative of maintaining relationships with other artists of all sorts, fearlessness, and yes, risk. It is imperative to have the confidence to engage the unknown and not to have every detail of everything immediately figured out, and to be extremely curious. Know how to make plans. Know how to amend them, to always be reaching,” Simpson said.

“Situate your practice in alignment with what you desire to create and give yourself the privilege to see what happens, and then reach beyond that. At times, doubt will pay a visit, but not to let it drive your decisions, to keep in mind the importance of your life experience and to remember what fuels your soul. Understand if what you choose to do is meaningful it is not always easy nor comfortable, but it will be meaningful for you and perhaps transformative for others.”


Days after the commencement, Lorna Simpson was awarded the 2018 SMFA Medal Award at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. Her new book, “Lorna Simpson: Collages,” was released earlier this month.


Bobby C. Martin Jr., received an honorary degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and delivered the 2018 commencement address on May 12, 2018. (The introduction of Martin is lengthy. It begins at 11:26.) | Video by VCU

Bobby C. Martin Jr.
Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond | May 12, 2018

Bobby C. Martin Jr., grew up in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond with a BFA in 1999, later earning an MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He is a founding partner of The Original Champions of Design (OCD), a branding and design firm in New York City with clients including the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Building on the rich foundation of the Virginia Museum of the Fine Arts, Richmond is becoming a hub of art. VCU recently opened a new Institute for Contemporary Art on campus. In his commencement address, Martin noted that there was a time not so long ago when the city did not embrace and value the arts. “Richmond was bleak. Times were hard. Progress seemed impossible,” he said and went on to tell the story of three young women, the age of the VCU graduates, who circa 1910 transformed the state of the arts in the city. He said he was asking them to be bold, too, to change the world.

“Art makes anything possible, if you’re tough enough,” Martin said.

“What I am talking about today is an awareness of how hard it is to lead, to create, to make something totally new. And how easy it is for the world to greet that with resistance. I know a little something about this. I am a black man. And, this is America. This is America. My dad, a professor at Hampton, a university not too far from here, would always tell me, ‘Do more than you’re asked, son. You are going to have to give more and you will get less. Do not give up.’ He might have thought I wasn’t listening, but I heard him. Who here has had that talk? It will serve you well in the arts. As an artist, we have to push, push, push and over deliver. Never give up.”


Original Champions of Design, Bobby C. Martin Jr.’s firm, designed The Atlantic’s special Martin Luther King Jr., commemorative issue, which was released in March and featured the work of artists Kara Walker and LaToya Ruby Frazier.


On May 13, 2018, Dawoud Bey received an honorary doctorate from Columbia College Chicago and gave the keynote address at the 2018 commencement. | Video by Columbia College Chicago

Dawoud Bey
Columbia College Chicago | May 13, 2018

A beloved and longtime professor, Dawoud Bey has been teaching at Columbia College Chicago since 1998. In his commencement address, Bey said he wanted to offer graduates his thoughts on shaping what is coming next in their lives, based on his more than four decades of experience as an artist. The photographer encouraged them to talk about their goals as an artist, remember the importance of developing a community of support, and take seriously their citizenship in the real world.

Whatever you want to do, the first step is speaking it out loud, he said. It can’t happen until you say it. If you don’t, how can anyone help you if they don’t know what you want to do? Bey said: “Never be afraid to voice your ambitions, to dream out loud, to be fearless and to see yourself doing the thing you dream of doing. That is always the beginning.”

He added: “Being an artist of one kind or another does not exempt you from the responsibilities of citizenship and in the best cases you find ways to bring the two things together, to make the creative work that you do have a meaningful place in the larger social world. …Find a way to bring that larger community into a conversation with your work and to realize that being a part of that broader conversation will actually sustain your work.”

In the end, he told them to have faith. “As long as you continue to raise the bar of your own practice in a rigorously self critical way and keep that work in front of people who need to see it, you have every reason to be hopeful…[to] believe that you and your work will find a place in that conversation,” Bey said. “Choosing the life that you have chosen, that we have chosen, is an act of faith and faith coupled to mindful action and rigor has been known to achieve extraordinary things.”


Dawoud Bey is presenting “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” a series of new “nighttime landscapes that reimagine the passage of fugitive slaves in Cleveland,” at The Front International Triennial in Cleveland next month, and Expo Chicago in September 2018. “Dawoud Bey: Seeing Deeply,” his first monograph, will also be published in September.


Mark Bradford addressed the class of 2018 and received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree at the Otis College of Art and Design’s commencement ceremony on May 13, 2018. (Bradford appears at 1:10:10-1:21:29.) | Video by Otis College of Art & Design

Mark Bradford
Otis College of Art & Design, Los Angeles | May 13, 2018

Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles landed abstract painter Mark Bradford, arguably the city’s most recognized artist, for its commencement. Bradford represented the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale and founded Art + Practice, a contemporary art foundation with programming for foster youth in the Leimert Park neighborhood where he grew up and keeps his studio.

He opened his remarks by saying “I wanted to come because this reminds me of me.” He told the assembled graduates that he earned his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 1997 and put himself through school working in a hair salon on Crenshaw Boulevard.

“You are graduating now and you are going to have doubt,” Bradford said. “What I want to tell you is there is something inside of each and everyone of you that was there before you got to school. …You are going to be in that room with doubt and looking in front of your computer or starting with a canvas or whatever creative things that we do and you’re going to have to hold onto something that you have, and I am telling you you have had it all your life. It is not something that you learned here. It’s something that has always been there. You have to hold onto that and believe in that and be fearless in that. ”

Bradford added: “When I came today, I didn’t have a prepared speech because I wanted to feel what was going on here and respond to it. I wanted a certain amount of vulnerability to come out of me because when you are there (seated among the graudates), you are just trying to figure out how to get here (where he is).”


Mark Bradford’s Venice Biennale show is being presented at the Baltimore Museum of Art this fall. “Mark Bradford: Tomorrow is Another Day” opens September 23, 2018. An exhibition catalog was published to document the project.


The San Francisco Art Institute bestowed an honorary degree on Kehinde Wiley at its May 13, 2018, commencement and then he made remarks. (He appears from 17:45-25:45.) | Video by Hewitt Visuals

Kehinde Wiley
San Francisco Art Institute | May 13, 2018

Kehinde Wiley returned to his alma mater, the San Francisco Art Institute where he earned a BFA in 1999, before going to Yale where he got his MFA. The commencement was on Mother’s Day, so like the speakers before him, Wiley began his remarks by acknowledging his mother. “What’s up mama?” he said. Then he spoke about goals, expectations, and how he works.

“I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity. You can’t imagine how amazing it feels to have been once sitting in one of those seats and [now to be] right up here talking to you guys. It’s out of body, out of form, the normal tempo of life. I spend everyday in the studio dealing with a hairy stick and colored paste and shushing things into existence. This is out there,” he said.

“However, it’s not entirely out there, because I sort of designed it to be outsized, I designed it to be bigger than what I thought I could handle. When you think life is not going to give you much, you design for super structure so that maybe you meet in the middle. Somehow it sort of met at the top.”

Wiley added: “What I try to do with my work work here, the work that I’ve been doing for the last 20-odd years, is celebrate people who happen to look like me. I go into small communities. I go into small villages in Africa. Go into underserved communities in New York. Go into places where people are oftentimes marginalized and invisible. And, I simply turn on the camera, turn on the lights, get the generators going, and ask them how they want to be seen. Let them have control over how their painting is going to be made. People don’t write about that often. But it’s their choice. It’s not mine. I am at service of people’s will. At service of an urge to be visible. I think as artists we know that quite intimately, that urge for people to see what it is that makes us unique in the world, to sort of scratch an itch that’s nascent in all of us.”


Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama was unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in February. An exhibition of new portraits by Wiley opens at the Saint Louis Art Museum in October 2018.


Carrie Mae Weems received an honorary degree and spoke at Maryland Institute College of Art’s graduate commencement on May 14, 2018. (Watch the full ceremony.) | Video by MICA

Carrie Mae Weems
Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore | May 14, 2018

Drawing on themes similar to those she explored in her commencement address at the School of Visual Arts in 2016—distinctions between the art world and the world of art, and how one measures a life—Carrie Mae Weems delivered an inspired message to MICA graduate students.

“I just want to talk to you for a moment about success and what we do as artists,” Weems said. She added that all of the graduates will get up every morning and work at art making. For many there will be no gallery shows, museum exhibitions, or publications, and little recognition. Despite what may come to feel like an unrewarded churn, she said it is imperative that they persist.

“You challenged all of those traditions that seemed to deny you a voice and a rightful place. You stood your ground. You stood your ground. And you distinguished between the difference between the art world and the world of art and you came to know full well that you did not enter this pursuit, this thing called art, for the money, because you’re really no fool. You didn’t do it for that. You really did it for the extraordinary thing that it is. The extraordinary thing that it offers. The extraordinary meaning that it offers. The extraordinary purpose that it offers. The extraordinary illumination that it offers,” Weems said.

“There is nothing more rewarding than doing what you want with your life. How do you measure your life? How will you measure your life? How will you measure your life? And hopefully, when you get far far far beyond this day in your lives and deeply rooted in your work, regardless of how it turns out, you will look back on it and you will say, ‘I have no regrets. I have no regrets.'”


“Carrie Mae Weems: The Usual Suspects” (April 12–Oct. 14, 2018) is currently on view at the LSU Museum of Art in Baton Rouge, La.


Joyce J. Scott received an honorary degree and then addressed the undergraduate commencement at the Maryland Institute College of Art on May 14, 2018. (Watch the full ceremony.) | Video by MICA

Joyce J. Scott
Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore | May 14, 2018

Baltimore bead artist and sculptor Joyce J. Scott received an honorary doctorate during the undergraduate commencement at MICA, her alma mater. Standing near the podium while the citation for her recognition was being read, Scott crossed her arms on her chest, giving the Wikanda salute to students in the audience.

As Scott delivered her remarks, encouraging the graduates to use their art to change the world, artist Maren Hassenger was seated nearby onstage. Hassenger recently retired from her position as director of MICA’s Rinehart School of Sculpture, one of the oldest programs of its kind in America.

“When I talk about ability, I talk about the arts as social justice. We are living in the time of the artist now, of the maker. Yes, we have preachers and politicians and everybody else… but we now have the ability through technology and our own wit and power to change this world and for me the way to do it is the old fashioned way—true activism one person at a time,” Scott said.

“My undergraduate degree was in education…I realized in my working, in my teaching, in my traveling, in my talking about myself as an artist and as an African American woman and educator, I realized the way that I was making the biggest difference was to hope that my artwork, which is about these issues, and my very being, talked about justice and equality for all one-on-one.”

She continued: “That’s the way we are going to win this world folks. It is the way you are going to show your real power, your prowess. It’s the way you gon’ get out and do the thang. By doing your artwork. Being true to it and sharing it with others.” Then Scott concluded by breaking into a brief song: “You know how I feel. It’s a new day. It’s a new life. It’s a new life for you…”


“Harriet Tubman and Other Truths” (Oct. 20, 2017-April 1, 2018), Scott’s, largest exhibition to date, was presented earlier this year at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton Township, N.J. A catalog was published to document the exhibition. It is the most comprehensive volume about her work.


At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Commencement on May 14, 2018, Rashid Johnson received an honorary doctorate. | Video by SAIC

Rashid Johnson
School of the Art Institute of Chicago | May 14, 2018

Rashid Johnson is an alum of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he earned his MFA after studying as an undergraduate with Dawoud Bey and McArthur Binion at Columbia College Chicago. The artist did not speak at the commencement. He was introduced by Daniel S. Berger, a physician, patron, and director of Iceberg Projects Gallery in Chicago. He said, “It’s rare to be in the position to observe someone within a short time develop into a great artist. I’ve been very fortunate to know Rashid early in his career and he continues to blow us away with every successive show.”


“No More Water,” Rashid Johnson’s first solo exhibition in Ireland, is currently on view at Lismore Castle Arts in Waterford (April 15-Oct. 14, 2018). Johnson joined forces with three fellow African American artists to save Nina Simone’s childhood home, which was declared a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation about a week ago.


After receiving an honorary doctorate of arts and human letters, Hilton Als spoke briefly at the New School 2018 Commencement on May 18, 2018. (He appears at 52:34-58:30.) | Video by The New School

Hilton Als
The New School, New York, N.Y. | May 18, 2018

Hilton Als received his honorary degree at The New School commencement, immediately following Glenn Ligon, at Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

A theater critic at The New Yorker, Als also writes about visual artists, has edited exhibition catalogs, and is a book author. He framed his commencement remarks by stating that he wanted to pay tribute to how much The New School, his alma mater, has meant to him. At the same time, he encouraged the graduates to use their power and creativity to combat the undemocratic ideals proliferating in American leadership.

“When I found the New School, I started to find myself,” Als said. “We live in a world of absolutes of sharp divisions between the good and the bad and some of that is warranted God knows… It is important to understand and to be active in undermining the powers that be and to use the skills that you’ve cultivated during your time at the New School, the dynamism and power of criticism, your ability to see and describe, and most importantly to remember. Thugs never win as long as there is us.”


Last year, Hilton Als curated the exhibition “Alice Neel: Uptown,” which was presented at David Zwirner Gallery in New York and Victoria Miro Gallery in London. He also edited the accompanying catalog.


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