Philly Renaissance man to Abington graduates: Use work to eradicate injustice

Abington keynote Thom Collins

Thom Collins, president and executive director of the Barnes Foundation, served as the keynote speaker at Penn State Abington's fall 2016 commencement ceremony on Dec. 16. 

Credit: Pam Brobst

ABINGTON, Pa. — Thom Collins likely caught the graduates and guests at the Penn State Abington fall 2016 commencement off guard. They expected a keynote speaker, but Collins is a genuine Philly born and bred Renaissance man: a lifelong Eagles fan who leads of one of the world's top arts and educational institutions, the Barnes Foundation based in Philadelphia.

Collins, the grandson of immigrants and son of a high school teacher, learned the life-changing possibilities of work at a young age. And he illustrated his message for the audience that work can elevate the spirit, alleviate suffering, and eradicate prejudice by drawing on the life of artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

"What does the unusual career of an exceptional artist … have to do with me, with my career aspirations, and my larger life ambitions?" Collins said, acknowledging what the hundreds of graduates in the historic Keswick Theater may have been thinking.

"Felix Gonzalez-Torres ... committed himself to public service, he committed himself to the common good. He was one of the most influential and successful of his generation ... but he was first and foremost a worker who dedicated himself to problem-solving on behalf of his communities and to investigating social, political, and economic ills," he said.

"The world only spins forward. You must be citizens of this world. The time has come. ... The great work begins."

-- Thom Collins, the Barnes Foundation,
paraphrasing the play "Angels in America"

Collins suggested it might have been easier for the artist to achieve his goals in a career such as nursing, law and law enforcement, social work, or teaching. But he argued that no matter the work Abington graduates choose, Gonzalez-Torres' life offers a powerful formula for this indispensable kind of human labor.

"It is any work that makes individuals and subpopulations visible regardless of their imagined or real marginality. It brings them together to represent themselves to one another and the world in ways that encourage communicative and material exchanges about and across difference," Collins said. "It is and always will be an ongoing process because the goals associated with this kind of work ... are shifting and changing all the time."

"Any kind of work you undertake can be this kind of work if you follow this relatively simple formula," he said.

Collins' life work seems to follow a similar path. With degrees from Swarthmore College and Northwestern University, he has forged a path as an innovative educator, author, and accomplished curator at some of the country’s top arts institutions.

He served as director of the Neuberger Museum of Art in New York, where he oversaw exhibitions, permanent collection displays, and a far-reaching platform of community-based educational programs for school children and adults.

Collins directed the $220 million construction and opening of the acclaimed Perez Art Museum Miami, his last post before returning to Philadelphia as president and chief executive officer at the Barnes Foundation in 2015.