Art As Ambassador: Dedication Remarks for the Harn’s Cofrin Asian Art Wing: Dedication of the Harn Museum of Art Asian Art Wing
It is a pleasure to be here tonight, and Chris and I enjoy seeing so many supporters of the Harn Museum.
Anyone who has picked up a paint brush or a piece of clay knows it takes faith to make a piece of art. Perhaps what separates good artists from great ones is that great artists have an abundance of faith. They’re passionate, and they believe in their work – even when no one else shares their passion or conviction.
Less than a quarter century ago, the place where we are standing tonight was an empty field far from the hum of life on our main campus.
It took faith to imagine a popular art museum here. And it took passion to build this museum into a center of arts and culture, a renowned university art museum, and a campus-wide student center – complete, as of tonight, with the Cofrin Asian Art Wingon the other side of the doors behind me.
We are all beneficiaries of the passion and faith of the Harn’s generous benefactors, Mary Ann Cofrin and the late Dr. David Cofrin. The Cofrins made possible the original Harn and its two expansions, and they also donated hundreds of stunning artworks in the Asian Art collection. Mary Ann Cofrin is here tonight with her five children and three grandchildren.
We are gathered this evening to dedicate the David A. Cofrin Asian Art Wing … and I know if I talk too long, you’ll push me aside to get through those doors! I also know that David Cofrin is watching and he wants me to get on with it!
So let me make a simple observation: This new wing and the art it cradles is not ours to dedicate. Not really. Art is the expression of our humanity – our cultures and histories, our personalities and stories. Art belongs to everyone. It expresses who we are. Our role – really, our privilege – is to make that expression of humanity a part of the most enduring purpose of this university.
And that … ladies and gentlemen … that purpose is the education of our students.
How do we prepare our treasured students for success in the 21st century? This is currently the subject of urgent national debate about the character and content of higher education. We must equip students for this era of instantaneous global communication, economic upheaval and rapidly changing cultural mores. On that we all agree. And, yet, there are vastly different opinions about how to shape university-level education to achieve that preparation.
At the University of Florida, we believe that art must be part of our toolkit. When students need to be prepared to live anywhere and communicate with anyone, art has a timeless legacy of initiating cultural contact – like the ceramic wares on display in the new wing, which remind us of the Silk Road where diverse peoples have crossed paths for 2,000 years.
Art broadens awareness. It can bring clarity and depth of field to one’s career and personal life. And it can help to inspire a happy life, an outcome surely as important as economic success.
I want to tell you about a current UF junior named Kayla Shahum, who last semester visited the Harn as part of a class exercise.
The day of her visit, Kayla was thrilled to finally get away from sitting in a lecture hall. And she appreciated the chance to see and touch real art, rather than viewing it on yet another Power Point. … Has anyone else here seen one too many Power Points?
What mattered most for Kayla was the magical way the Harn opened the door to the uncomfortable topic of the class, which was grief.
Guided by Professor Jane Houston and Harn curators, the students looked at different artworks and talked about how they shed light on the many aspects of the grieving process. The discussion was honest and fresh … and it got Kayla thinking for the first time about the rich possibilities for art in her career.
You see, Kayla and her classmates need to become experts at helping others cope with grief. They aren’t studying art, museum science or art history. They are students of nursing.
To date this academic year, the Harn has welcomed Kayla and 3,566 other University of Florida students in class visits. The classes come from journalism, engineering, sociology, architecture, English and medicine. They even come from IFAS. If you speak to these students or their professors, you learn that more than a few have experiences like Kayla’s.
As Nigel Smith, a professor of geography who routinely brings his classes to the Harn, commented, “You can see little lights going on.”
Those little lights may not be as measurable as standardized test scores. But they satisfy our deepest responsibility as educators, which is to open students’ eyes to new and unfamiliar landscapes.
And today, no new and unfamiliar landscape may be more important than the one our students will confront in the growing countries of Asia.
We already have a variety of classes that revolve around Asia; study abroad programs in Asia; and the UF Beijing Center. But that is not enough.
Works of art – the works of the weaver, the ceramics maker, the film maker – are ambassadors for their countries and cultures. If want our students to know China, Korea or India, we must introduce them to the countries’ ambassadors.
The Harn’s Asian art collection is rich and extensive, but most of it has been locked away in storage. With the opening of the Asian Art Wing, we set these works free to continue their diplomatic mission to our students and the world.
Nothing I can say can match the experience of the five exhibitions in the new wing. So, let me simply note, there are about 400 works of art on display this evening, each carefully selected from the more than 2,000 pieces in the Harn’s Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, South and Southeast Asian collections.
The exhibitions tell many stories … of the jades of the Ming dynasty, of Chinese women artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, of the Silk Road.
What you won’t see, but what you should know, is that the Harn is uniquely equipped to tell these stories. Its two dedicated endowments for Asian art acquisitions and its endowed curatorial position in Asian art makes the Harn a leading university teaching museum for Asian art.
For our students and for us, the Asian Art Wing will be many things – a place to learn, to interact, to engage in quiet contemplation. But the art here also represents our passport to the landscapes and cultures that are most important to our future. As Professor Smith said, art turns on little lights.
Who knows what future awaits our graduates as they find their homes around the globe? The world is full of clashes of misunderstanding and conflicts of civilizations. But a shared understanding of art gives us a shared understanding of humanity. It promotes acceptance and appreciation. It gives us direction. It shows us an Earth the way it appears from space at night, with those little lights twinkling throughout every civilization. Thank you.