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A message to graduates from Peabody dean | COMMENTARY

Student musicians at the Peabody Institute perform.
Student musicians at the Peabody Institute perform.(Homewood Photography)

As I prepared and thought about comments that I would make to our 211 graduates at the Peabody Conservatory’s first ever “virtual graduation” Wednesday, I was struck by the dichotomy between two competing views of the disruption we are all experiencing. That the world of the performing arts has been turned upside down and will never be the same; and that this too shall pass, some institutions will survive it and others won’t, and things will go back, more or less, to the way they once were.

One thing that is a constant across those two extremes is that art matters. There is a memorable line in the movie “Jurassic Park” where Dr. Malcom, the mathematician who specializes in chaos theory, notes that “life, finds a way.” The same can be said of art — art finds a way.

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Over the last two months, faced with huge uncertainty and colossal losses in revenues and philanthropy, arts institutions are finding ways to make a positive contribution at an extraordinary time. At schools like Peabody that teach the performing arts, faculty have found new, often brilliant, ways to teach. Students are finding new ways to learn. And despite the absence of live performances, institutions are pushing the work of students and faculty out into the world digitally in the form of archived concerts, living room concerts, virtual ensembles, teaching vignettes and more. Performing arts organizations around the world, despite being shuttered, are doing the same thing.

And we’ve all learned more from it about how to reach people — how to touch people — at a time when they need it more than ever. This is what art does. I was especially reminded of this recently when social media captured the vision of a solo violinist giving an impromptu concert on a rooftop in Italy, with many coming out on their balconies to listen to this welcome distraction from everyday life. Art finds a way.

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At the same time, we have also been reminded with new urgency that part of being a 21st century artist is being flexible and finding new pathways, new ways to make art relevant. The pandemic aside, this is something that artists were already facing for many different reasons — economic, lifestyle changes, changes in educational priorities and more.

This last several months have given artists and performers an opportunity — a real life opportunity — to apply their flexibility and creativity to finding new ways to make, teach and disseminate music and dance and other art forms. And that may be the silver lining in this. The fact is that this is something that artists must do to ensure a great future for the role of arts across our communities. As in many fields, the pandemic has simply accelerated the process of learning and discovery.

This is not in any way to imply that live performances will not continue to be important — in fact, live performance may get a renewed sense of purpose. I hope so. Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder. And there is nothing that substitutes for the shared, live experience.

But we have had to think anew about what role technology can play — what things it can help to accentuate and what are its limitations. We also know, if history is any guide, that the technology will continue to evolve — maybe to a point where one day, sooner than we might imagine, the virtual experience is not discernible from a live, real time, experience. Think virtual reality.

Which brings me back to the critical points that indeed art matters; and that while there will always be a place for live performance, this pandemic has forced us all to think anew about how artists reach audiences, how audiences want to consume and experience the arts, and how we will adjust our whole notion of performance to meet this constantly evolving and changing reality.

It is never easy to make a career in the arts. And I’ll tell our graduates Wednesday that they are entering the world and our field at a moment of unprecedented challenge. I will also tell them that the world needs what they do more than ever, and that excellence — along with their creativity, flexibility and resilience — is likely to win the day. It’s a tall order, but if anyone can do it, artists can.

Fred Bronstein (fred.bronstein@jhu.edu) is dean of the Peabody Institute.

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