David Byrne's advice to arts graduates: "You're screwed!"
June 6, 2013
David Byrne’s Advice
Despite the well-worn conventions of the commencement address, there’s something moving, even fun, about watching famed figures offer up advice and inspiration to graduating students each spring (Oprah sharing her journey from Southern poverty to media moguldom at Harvard was one highlight this year, as was Greil Marcus’s eloquent defense of popular art forms at the School of Visual Arts). But in these self-conscious, irony-drenched times, it may be inevitable that some speakers will attempt to avoid the clichés of the form, instead taking a less sentimental approach to the commencement speech. The musician, writer, playwright, visual artist, and bike enthusiast David Byrne delivered one such address on a recent Wednesday afternoon in the Miller Theatre at the Columbia University School of the Arts.
Carol Becker, the dean of faculty, opened the ceremony by ticking off an impressive list of School of the Arts alumni and their recent accomplishments: the filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow and fiction writer Karen Russell are both alums, as is Ayad Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer Prize in drama this year for his play “Disgraced.” Thirty-four films by Columbia filmmakers were selected for the 2013 Sundance festival; sixteen were nominated for Independent Spirit Awards; and six faculty and alums were given Guggenheim fellowships. “In a very short time,” Becker told the assembled graduates, “you all will become part of the great story of success that is the School of the Arts.” Then the chair of the visual-arts program, Gregory Amenoff, took to the podium to recap some of Byrne’s multi-disciplinary career highlights. “Thank God we have a rocker onstage, thank God it’s not Ted Nugent,” he concluded to enthusiastic cheers, and then Byrne, wearing a pale-gray suit and white shoes, took the mic. “I thought it was an odd choice that the band played my song ‘Road to Nowhere’ as people were coming in,” he said wryly.
But “Road to Nowhere” was an apt prelude to Byrne’s speech (his first-ever commencement address), which focused on, of all things, the financial prospects of arts-program graduates. In a slide-show presentation on the auditorium’s projection screen, Byrne showed a series of graphs, based on information compiled by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), illustrating that if you chose a career in the arts you are, basically, screwed. A pie chart, based on 2011 data, showed that only three per cent of film and theatre grads, and five per cent of writing and visual-arts grads, end up working in their areas of concentration (forty-three percent work in the arts but outside of their specialties; forty-one per cent work outside of the arts altogether). A subsequent bar graph showed that, according to those stats, fourteen writing and fourteen Columbia visual-arts graduates will go on to careers in their fields, and eight theatre and eight film grads will go on to careers in theirs. “That’s the end of the charts,” Byrne said, after sharing another, which showed the median salaries of people working in the arts (between thirty-five and forty-five thousand dollars across all four sectors). “I’m glad you’re laughing.” (You can watch Byrne’s entire speech, and the rest of the ceremony, here.)
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