From the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Photographs of China from the early twentieth century are relatively uncommon. Of those images that survived the unrest, most were taken by foreign travelers whose photos returned home with them. Such was the case with the extensive photographic work of renowned sociologist and China scholar Sidney Gamble (1890-1968). This exhibition, curated by Duke faculty, library staff, and students, provides an intimate view of China during this important historical period. Curated by Professor Guo-Juin Hong (AMES) and Luo Zhou, Chinese studies librarian, this exhibit runs from thru November 1 in the Photography Gallery of the reopened Rubenstein Library.
An opening reception will be on September 3 at 4pm in the Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room, Rubenstein Library, 1st floor. Please register at http://tinyurl.com/Gamblereception
Photographs from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
A new piece by visual art professor Pedro Lasch, HOW TO KNOW: The Protocols and Pedagogy of National Abstraction, was presented recently as part of the 2015 Creative Time Summit at the Venice Art Biennale. It is part of a larger series of highly collaborative projects called Abstract Nationalism & National Abstraction. The first installment, which drew on the expertise of a number of artists, performers, and scholars at Duke, was presented last year at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.
HOW TO KNOW, a new work by Pedro Lasch, frames the 2015 Creative Time Summit: The Curriculum at the Venice Biennale, and is part of a larger series. Social interventions, visual compositions, flag displays, and musical works enable audiences to understand national anthems of other countries in their own language, while their own anthem becomes incomprehensible. For those speaking several languages, or having strong associations with more than one anthem, the experience is even more layered and representative of today’s cultural pluralism.
Each of the forty-eight flags of the installation at the Teatro alle Tese, in the Arsenale, combines four countries, so that all of the world’s countries are represented, in alphabetical order.
The flags are set in motion through simple choreographed movements by members of a color guard, here called the curricular guard for the multilingual terms and phrases that appear on their shirts; together the flags and color guard propose a re-envisioned curriculum for All of the World’s Futures.
The Duke University Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts (DukeArts) and University Center Activities and Events (UCAE) have worked with the Arts Annex, duARTS, VisARTS and Artstigators, to organize a new series of FREE workshops for students where they can learn and practice studio art techniques.
The DukeCreate Arts Workshop Series will include instruction in photography – digital and dark room, screen printing, ceramics, and painting and drawing. The workshops will start the first week of September and end in late November, in keeping with the academic calendar. Instruction will be offered by local arts professionals, MFA|EDA students and Duke faculty. The workshops will be held in a creative and supportive environment with an emphasis on skill development and practical experience.
The purpose of the workshops is to create an extracurricular educational experience, connect students with on-campus student arts organizations and opportunities, foster a forum for dialogue and dynamic community building in the arts on campus and with local arts organizations in the triangle area.
The workshops will also expose participants to the academic opportunities available in the arts on campus, including courses, majors, grants, independent study, internships, mentorships, and create collaborative interaction where students gain practical guidance about careers in the arts.
- DukeCreate Arts Workshop Series will run from early September through late November.
- Workshop are FREE and on a first come-first served.
- Sign-in is required at Arts Annex Information Desk. Walk-ins are welcome. Class size is limited.
- Workshop hours: 6-8pm Wed & Thur + 2-4pm Sat. Workshops begin promptly at designated times.
- For more information about DukeCreate Arts Workshop Series contact the Arts Annex at (919) 613-5116.
The Arts Annex is located just off the C1, C5 & CSW bus stops on Campus Drive. 404 Gattis Street, Durham NC 27708, Tel: 919-613-5116. Hours: Sun–Thur 10am–12am & Fri–Sat 10am–8pm, arts.duke.edu/arts-annex
This program is sponsored by Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts (DukeArts), University Center Activities and Events (UCAE), in cooperation with the Arts Annex, duARTS, VisARTS, and #artstigators.
(photo by D.L. Anderson)
When Aaron Greenwald came to Duke in 2007 to be interim director of Duke Performances, concerted efforts to raise the profile of the arts at Duke were in their early stages. As executive director, he’s led the organization through a time of great change and expansion. Duke Performances now presents about 80 shows per season—a "willfully eclectic" mix of music, dance, and theater—in a diverse collection of venues. It’s inviting the community to campus, as it always has, but also meeting its audience in the community. And it’s finding creative ways to make connections from the performing arts to academics across the curriculum.
A key part of Greenwald’s strategy as director has been to cultivate an eclectic set of venues to suit his eclectic lineup of shows. With the transformative renovation of Baldwin Auditorium two seasons ago and renovations on Page Auditorium nearly complete, Duke’s on-campus performance halls are sounding better and looking better than they ever have, but that doesn’t mean that they’re ideal for every show. For example, none of them have the capacity and reach of the Durham Performing Arts Center or the nightclub ambience of Motorco Music Hall, to name two off-campus venues that are in regular rotation.
Duke Performances' 2014/2015 season by the numbers:
- 80 presentations
- Total audience of 35,000
- 8,000 $10 tickets sold to Duke students, subsidized by the Office of the Provost
- 50 artist residency events serving over 3,000 Durham students and community members
The match of show and setting has been especially important for Duke Performances’ distinctive commissioning program. For instance, the first new work performed in Baldwin Auditorium was a piece commissioned from renowned pianist-composer Billy Childs for the celebration of 50 Years of Black Students at Duke University. It was just a few weeks after the hall's grand reopening that a capacity crowd filled it to hear Dianne Reeves, one of the premier jazz vocalists of our day, sing Childs’ somber, challenging composition. A few months later, Duke Performances produced an “indie pop puppet opera”—a collaboration between then Duke theater professor Torry Bend and the Durham-based band Bombadil. Its four shows filled the Durham Arts Council’s auditorium—the epitome of a community performance space—with families and fans eager to see what these local heroes had dreamed up. (It was a pretty wild ride.)
As a presenter at an academic institution, an important part of Duke Performances’s brief is to connect artists to the curriculum. To that end, it arranges campus residencies for some of its artists during which they give workshops, open rehearsals, and talks, to visit classes, and to mix informally with students and faculty. The interactions extend beyond the obvious pairings of instrumentalists with student composers, choreographers with student dancers, and so on. For instance, the theme of the play that theater troupe Rude Mechs presented at Duke in 2014 was evolution by natural selection. As part of their residency, they visited the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center to discuss the art of communicating scientific concepts to the public—increasingly a concern in scientific circles.
I spoke to Greenwald in mid-April about his vision for Duke Performances, his background, and how he keeps all these balls in the air. A few weeks earlier I had a small part in the residency of violinist-vocalist-composer Jenny Scheinman. She was on campus to perform music she’d composed to accompany film of mid-twentieth-century life in the Piedmont—a documentary montage assembled from archival material in Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. A few days before her show she visited the songwriting class I teach and several of my students performed songs for her. She’s an artist with tremendous focus, and the friendly, incisive way she engaged with the students and their songs was a pleasure to watch. The whole project, which took material from Duke and returned it much enriched while engaging regional history and the documentary arts, is a testament to Greenwald’s vision and to the value Duke Performances brings to campus.
Billy Childs with Dianne Reeves and the Ying Quartet premiere Childs' composition "Enlightened Souls" (photo by Michael Zirkle)
As the director of Duke’s premier presenting organization, what’s your basic approach to the job?
We’re somewhat unusual as a presenter in that we offer things from very, very small to quite large. We do that because we think that the little things are as good as the big things. We do that also because we think that bachata music can be as great as a Beethoven string quartet.
And the range of things you present is…?
We have our core classical presenting. We can be thoughtful programmers when it comes to jazz and contemporary classical and American vernacular and international music. We’re engaged in creating new work, sometimes new work that is connected to Duke. We also present theater and dance, often in relation to the departments here on campus.
That's more so with theater and dance than music, you're saying?
Yes. We also think about things we can engage that nobody else in the marketplace could engage, by virtue of the venues we have access to, or our patron base, or the subsidy we've been allotted by the university. This is a little hard to define, but it’s the idea you're seeing projects here that you couldn't see anywhere else, maybe in the world or in the country, but certainly not locally.
Obviously what you want with a program like ours is for people to trust you enough to take chances. We have to have an audience that's curious enough to say, "If Duke Performances is offering it, I'm going to give it a shot." Maybe they’ll go see Branford Marsalis one week and the St. Lawrence String Quartet the next week, an indie folk musician like William Tyler the following week and Urban Bush Women after that.
One of the things we can do is slide along the range from small scale to large scale. Next year we'll present Buena Vista Social Club. We'll present them at the Durham Performing Arts Center. That'll be huge.
We'll also present Lula Pena, a great Portuguese artist who lives between fado and flamenco. We'll present her in the round in the Nelson Music Room. She's fabulous. Have many people around here heard of her? Not really. But I think what she's doing is interesting enough that we can generate a reasonable audience for it.
Performing Arts in the Classroom
Alonzo King with students (photo by Michael Zirkle)
You don’t just bring artists to perform, though. Sometimes they also do a residency, visit classes, work with students, give talks, and connect in other ways to folks on campus.
Absolutely. That's an important component for us, as a university presenter, when we’re developing work. We say to artists, “We're commissioning this and part of the agreement we're making is that you're going to have some residency engagement.”
Are there residencies that come to mind that you think worked especially well, that really connected with students and faculty and maybe the broader community?
Sure. We brought Alonzo King for about ten days. Alonzo is a ballet choreographer. He's also a great class teacher. He offered a series of company classes for ballet students. He was performing a piece based on Scheherazade, so he was able to go to a Global France class and talk about orientalism in the context of the work. There was a collaboration with the jazz pianist Jason Moran on the same program, so he was also able to talk about that kind of collaboration and how jazz and ballet live together.
That was a residency that had several spokes. Another was when we brought in Rude Mechs, a theater company from Austin, Texas, to do a piece called Now, Now, Oh Now. It had to do with evolutionary biology and natural selection, so they engaged with scientists on campus. They're a really good devised theater group, so they also talked about devised theater, and about what a theater career looks like in a smaller city like Austin compared to, say, New York or San Francisco.
You’ve also partnered with the music department to bring contemporary classical ensembles for residencies that include intensive work with graduate composition students.
The Ph.D. in composition is the most advanced degree Duke offers in the creative arts. Students in that program fully intend to work as professional composers. It's essential that they work with outstanding musicians. We're already in the business of bringing outstanding musicians to campus. We work with the agents and managers, we have the presenting apparatus, so it's really natural for us to connect some of those musicians to the composers on campus.
As a former composition student I know how fantastic it's been for them not only to have their music played and recorded by top-notch bands like yMusic and the Bad Plus but also to make professional connections that can be hugely important as they move forward.
What we're doing is we're matching bright, committed composers with bright, committed ensembles. It's been a rewarding arrangement on both sides.
The Classical Anchor
Simone Dinnerstein masterclass (photo by Alex Maness)
Alright, let me shift gears. I remember when you came to Duke. I wasn’t very tuned in to happenings on campus at the time, but I did know that Kathy Silbiger had retired. I feel like I went to a show in Page Auditorium and ran into a friend who pointed to a guy named Aaron who was running the show. I got the idea that you were going to make it edgier or more eclectic. What worked and what did you have to adjust?
Many of the things that we did really registered, like the idea of thematic programming and of programming that's unique to this place. One of the first things we did was the Following Monk series, which connected to the Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies. Jason Moran used some of that material to create a new piece, which we then brought to Town Hall in New York City a couple of years later. Projects like that generated a lot of enthusiasm around the organization.
One of the biggest challenges when I came was the core classical programming. The mainstay of Duke's performing arts programming for decades had been The Duke Artist Series, an institution that dated back to before Kathy started in the 1980s. Six subscription concerts a year—big names, like Joshua Bell or Miami City Ballet—that had packed Page Auditorium. But subscriptions had really diminished. There were too many other things in town. I think there's probably 1000% more tickets available for entertainment in the Triangle area than there were ten years ago.
So I said, "Maybe we need to make the series more radical. We'll have edgy new music from the likes of Kronos Quartet and Osvaldo Golijov and older music with an attitude, like Andrew Manze’s historically informed Beethoven.” That worked okay, but it was challenging. Then I said, "Maybe it should be a world classical music series. Let's bring in Zakir Hussain as the classical artist this month, or Simon Shaheen." It felt sort of schizophrenic.
Since then I’ve had a real evolution with my thinking about classical music. One thing I learned was that sometimes it's useful, especially when you're working in classical traditions, to say, "This is our chamber music series and it's going to be really exceptional chamber music. We're going to bring in the best groups from all over the world, in different stages of their careers, and they’ll play material that has endured for 100 or 200 or 300 years. That's what really great looks like." Certainly, an evening of jazz can be that great, music by international artists can be that great, but we're not going to present a jazz musician like Brad Mehldau and call it a piano recital.
Presenting classical music at an extremely high level anchors our programming and allows us to pursue the eclecticism that we want in the rest of the series. We concentrate on soloists and smaller ensembles because we have the resources to present that music and an audience that’s receptive to it. And with Baldwin Auditorium we finally have a venue that does justice to it. We can offer an experience of chamber music on par with any program in any concert hall in the world. A few weeks ago I was in Baldwin for a really moving performance of Benjamin Britten's last quartet by the Elias String Quartet. It reminded me how incredibly lucky we are that we can have that experience right here in Durham.
Ovation at Durham's historic Hayti Heritage Center during Sounds of the South series (photo by Michael Zirkle)
Baldwin’s renovation has been a game changer, for sure, but taking Duke Performances off campus has been a pretty big deal, too. What was the thinking behind that?
Well, we started working at these places in the community because they were better venues than we had on campus for things we wanted to present. If you want to present a bachata artist or a hip hop artist, you probably want to do it at the club ...
…in their native environment.
Right. I really like the idea of having this whole network of venues and we get to choose from them. We were just trying to feel that out. But we've gotten a lot of nice feedback from patrons as a result. I think at the time there had been some institutional rethinking, that what we present at Duke needs to be for the whole community we live in. Certainly the arts provide a really good place for the community and the campus to meet.
We’ve also worked with a lot of local artists. That partly happened by accident, too. There was this Music in the Gardens series during the summer that had gone through a lot of evolutions but it had dwindled down, and I thought, "How can we hip this thing up?" So we started a series that was mostly focused on indie rock, right when there was a rebirth of the indie rock scene around here. The series has been a way to get to know bands like Megafaun and Lost In The Trees in a different way than a presenter like us would normally get to know them.
Scenes from the 2010/2011 residency of the Bad Plus: covering Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, a Duke Performances commission; reading/critique session with graduate composition students (photos: Michael Zirkle)
Duke Performances has also commissioned quite a few new works and quite a few different kinds of new works. On one end of the spectrum, there was the puppet show that Torry Bend and Bombadil put together, which I guess was an outgrowth of your engagement with local bands. But you’ve also commissioned work from high profile groups like The Bad Plus, and from really interesting artists who are maybe not such big names but have a national profile, like Jenny Scheinman. How are these projects conceived and what is the process like once they get going?
I think we're looking for projects that, from the word go, or at least from a couple initial conversations, feel like they're doable. Like with Nick Sanborn, who's now half of the group Sylvan Esso. I knew that Nick was an interesting person, that he’d worked with a lot of different people across a lot of different styles. I asked if maybe we could make a show together and he came back with an idea. He said he wanted to tell the stories about how he met different bandmates. He’d introduce them one at a time and the band would evolve as the show goes on. We turned the Nelson music room into a lounge and we put together this really small, lovely show called Lend Me Your Voice. It was really effective.
So it’s a matter of finding an interesting and productive artist and asking what they’d like to do?
Yes. You say, "We would love to collaborate. Is there something you have in your head?" Sometimes people have seen projects we've made and they say, "I've got an idea I want to try out with you." In other instances, like with a dance project, we'll approach someone like the Bad Plus and say, “You can make it here and then it will be out there in the world."
In some ways it's about finding the lead, and knowing who the artists are. Like with Jenny Scheinman. I knew her by her reputation, and she had come as a part of Bill Frisell’s band. So I said, "We have these films, and since you're a composer and also a fiddle player and also a singer, maybe you could make something of them? Maybe they would resonate with you?"
I remember you saying during one of her forums that it took five years.
It was five years from when we started talking about it to when she finished it. I think, for her, there were a lot of hurdles in the process. It was the first time she had made anything like that.
There's a learning curve every time we make a project like that. It turns out that if you're going to make a project from the archive you're going to have to sort through a ton of material. Someone's going to have to do that, which seems obvious now. But at first you just think, "Here's the films, aren't they beautiful? Let's make a show."
Each time we learn a little more. We did the new project with Ari Picker in much the same way we did Nick Sanborn’s show in the Nelson Music Room.
So you’re getting a better idea of how to use your venues and what the timelines are…
…and the tricks, and how much rehearsal is necessary. So much is in the artist's hands. There are really only five or ten times in the course of a project, or even less, when we can say, "Maybe you should try it differently here.”
Right. Mostly you're at their mercy.
And that's the way it should be. It's knowing when those moments arrive when you can be most helpful and have the most impact. We’re definitely not the ones making the thing.
But you can be a reality check?
Occasionally. Or say, "It seems like we need to see the score at this point." Or, "This is really a 35 minute evening of music. Maybe there needs to be some talking." Sometimes they take the suggestions and sometimes they don't.
So how does Duke Performances compare to other presenters in terms of commissioning? Are other places doing the same kind of thing?
Other presenters do it, but I think few do it with the frequency and the on-the-ground approach that we have. We put a higher emphasis on developing and producing work and we do it in a way that’s a little bit more organic. We've certainly taken the Kronos Quartet approach where we’re one of the organizations commissioning Steve Reich to write a quartet.
He's quite a known quantity with quite a track record.
Right, and that's mostly what other presenters do, they commission known quantities. A manager approaches and says, "So and so wants to make a dance about segregation and they want you to commission it and here are the other commissioners aboard." That absolutely has its place.
Partly because we have a scale model that’s somewhat unusual, we’re able to take on small projects. I think a lot of other presenters are stuck making big projects because they're trying to fill an 800 seat hall or a 1200 seat hall. They're house-bound.
Would be true of Carolina Performing Arts? They’re bound to Memorial Hall so they can’t be too experimental?
Yes, I think that's a challenge that they have. All of those Rite of Spring commissions they did were amazing, but they had to be huge because they had to be the scope of a 1400 seat theater.
So would you say they have their niche and you have yours?
Yes, there's a kind of implicit understanding of who does what, though sometimes that gets crossed. Same with the Carolina Theater, which is a 1,000 seat venue.
Behind the Scenes
Reynold Industries Theater being prepped for Alonzo King show (photo by Michael Zirkle)
I'd like to look at the inner workings of Duke Performances a little. What do you do on a yearly time scale vs. a weekly or a daily time scale?
The challenge of Duke Performances is that the office is almost always working on all of those scales simultaneously. We’re thinking about the show that's a month ahead, making sure that the contracts are executed, that we have all the instruments that are needed, that the sound is going to be right, that the air travel and the ground transport makes sense makes sense, stuff like that. I spend about 5 to 10% of my time dealing with payment to foreign artists, which is truly an awful process.
Then there’s an artist who’s here and she needs to go to lunch and needs the technician to talk to her about the piano. We have to make sure we have all the comps together, make sure the light is right.
Simultaneous to that, I'm planning what we're going to do for the next season, which I actually just finished. Essentially, I've been slotting things in since last November, and I started having conversations about the 2015-16 season probably a year ago.
You must have a list of artists you are interested in but then is it mainly a matter of who’s going to be touring where?
Yes. You try and figure out who's going to be touring, when they're going to be coming through. Certain things book more rapidly than others. Chamber music we're able to book a long time ahead—I think we've booked 2016-17 already for chamber music and pianists. Vocal ensembles book a little bit later. Theater and dance we tend to book a year in advance. The jazz and vernacular stuff books on all different time scales. We're just trying to confirm something with Nick Lowe for a Christmas show with him next December. That will be the last thing we confirm for the season.
The Making of Aaron Greenwald
Aaron Greenwald (photo by Tom Rankin)
Can you talk a little bit about your background and how you got into this line of work?
I grew up in the Bay Area, just north of San Francisco and my mother and I would go to see two or three things a week. Her interests included a lot of jazz and American vernacular music as well as dance and theater. I listened to all that music growing up. My parents were students at San Francisco State in 1969. I always joke about them that they were at a place and a time that actually mattered, as opposed to most of the rest of us who have no confidence that that’s the case.
It was a historic setting indeed.
And it was also a setting that was infused with music and culture. I saw a lot of concerts and listened to a lot of music growing up and lived in those worlds. The Bay Area was a place where there was a lot going on. Interestingly we spent a lot of time at Cal Performances, which is the presenting series at UC Berkeley. It felt like they had democratized the space. One night you would see The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the next night it would be Sonny Rollins, and then the next night it would be Sweet Honey and the Rock and the next night Mark Morris. It was all on the same stage in the same auditorium. I think that was more radical at the time than it is now.
The thing I was most interested in was theater. I went to college at Columbia where I did five years and got a bachelor's and master's degree in theater and theater directing. Then I spent a year on a Fulbright in South Africa where I wrote about theater. Then I had a little bit of a crisis of faith and decided I didn't want to be a struggling theater maker in New York City and I moved to Nashville and produced country music videos.
At the time, Nashville was not a great place to be a 25 year old, so I moved back to New York and I ended up working for an offshoot of George Wein's festival productions, producing different kinds of festivals in the city and beyond. I think I had a pretty solid foundation when I came here, but it was sort of a weird foundation. I knew a lot about jazz, a lot about, like, Ornette Coleman, but I had to learn a lot more about classical music.
Sure. I’d think theater is not a bad background to have, though, if you're coordinating all these moving parts and dramatic people.
I think that’s right. Unlike music or dance, theater is about the show. It hasn't proven to be so true but at one point I thought the only people we should hire to work here are people with a background in theater. Ariel Fielding, who's our marketing director, does have a theater background. I think just from a presentation point of view it's really helpful.
The Presenter and the Academy
Ronald K. Brown leads a modern dance class (photo by Michael Zirkle)
As a whole, what would you say a presenting organization like yours brings to a university, both to the community and to the academic mission?
I think first and foremost it's good for students, faculty, and the community, to see work that is presented at the highest possible level. It's good to see expert work and it’s even better when you have an opportunity to peel back the layers of that work and understand how it's made.
Also, we bring practical expertise that helps realize the academic goals. It often happens that faculty come to us with an idea. They want to bring a great Brazilian singer, maybe, and they say, "why don't we bring Gilberto Gil?" The problem is, maybe he isn’t touring. Maybe he costs $75,000 to book. Maybe he’s already playing at Carolina Performing Arts. We can help them think about what they're trying to achieve and who else fits the bill. We can come up with the names. I think we're really good at things like that.
That kind of exchange works both ways. When we're generating projects or we need to make sure that these artists have interaction with the students, we go to the faculty to ask how we can make that happen.
Institutions of higher education, especially the elite ones, have made a commitment to the arts. But making it work requires collaboration, and collaboration is a real challenge, especially when it's between people who have different strengths or different orientations. Part of the challenge is realizing that everyone brings expertise to the table, the presenter as much as the academic or the artist.
It's nearly the end of Beverly McIver’s first semester at Duke since joining the faculty as the first Esbenshade Professor of the Practice of Visual Arts, and her intermediate painting class is in session. The students are working in an atmosphere of calm concentration, many of them brushing paint onto bold, larger-than-life versions of themselves for their final assignment, a self-portrait. As McIver circulates from one to the next making introductions, she points out their accomplishments and describes their background and their painting style. Also, she tells stories. She teases. She throws her head back and laughs. The rapport between her and her students is something to see.
The story on senior James Ferguson, for instance, is that he showed up after the start of the semester hoping to join the class. McIver regretfully informed him that it was full. “He took a seat on a bench and started drawing,” she says. “Obviously he was not going anywhere.”
“You hadn’t told me a definitive no,” Ferguson shoots back, smiling.
Ferguson has finished his self-portrait, which is the middle in a strip of three panels showing him with his mother and father. Families are often portrayed with, say, their dogs or their bible or their musical instruments. Ferguson’s painting shows his family bobbing in the water, swim masks and snorkels pulled up over their foreheads—a take on the tradition that’s as novel as it is charming.
With the portrait finished, Ferguson has moved on to irises. McIver warned him against it. “You don't want to do that,” she said. “Flowers are too hard to paint.” But looking at his work she has to admit that “so far it's turned out pretty swell.”
Harry “Hap” Esbenshade III
It was a confluence of interests that led Harry “Hap” Esbenshade III to endow a chair in the arts, but it started with a trip. He and his daughter were looking for a college with a strong visual arts program. They toured a lot of schools and what they found was a large concentration in the northeast and a few in the south. But, he says, “there’s really nothing in the southeast.” That’s especially true if you’re looking for a strong arts program at a liberal arts college.
To Esbenshade, a business-minded alumnus (class of ’79) with a long record of philanthropic and volunteer service to Duke, the void looked not so much like a problem as an opportunity – a chance, he says, for Duke “to distinguish itself by becoming the truly exceptional school in the arts in the southeast.”
Steps had already been taken in that direction, starting with the founding of the Nasher Museum of Art, which gave Duke much-needed credibility in the arts arena. Still, Esbenshade says, “compared to many other areas at Duke, we have farther to go to bring the arts up to the same status as the rest of the university. I wanted to do something to help move us in that direction.”
The Vision, Realized
This past spring about a dozen students took the first painting course made possible by Esbenshade's gift to Duke. Their professor, Beverly McIver, is a significant presence on the contemporary American art scene with an inspiring life story that began in the projects in Greensboro, North Carolina. It turns out that she is also an experienced, exacting, enthusiastic teacher who has tremendous rapport with her students.
Esbenshade is, in his description, an unlikely patron of the arts. “I’m a specialty contractor,” he says. “We do roofing, sheet metal and mechanical contracting, and have shops. What do I know about art?” Considering that his daughter is a talented painter and his mother was an artist, as well, he may be selling himself a little short. But in any case, he clearly knows something about artists and about arts education, and he’s troubled by what he sees.
“We delay discovery of the arts in public schools through underfunding,” he says, “so unfortunately it may not come until college. And then the students get in and they say, ‘Wow! I wish I could have gotten this sooner, but now I’m going to get as much as I can.’”
That thinking informs his gift. Duke has long offered introductory classes in painting and drawing but little beyond that. Esbenshade stipulated that the professorship he endowed is for an artist who will teach intermediate and advanced arts. It’s meant to give students that opportunity to dig deeper. It also gives college applicants with an interest in the arts more reason to seriously consider Duke.
The Esbenshade Professorship of the Practice of Visual Arts, then, is a strategic investment by Esbenshade in Duke’s program of expansion in the arts – an endeavor he sees as important and promising. It’s “a very small but corrective step” for arts education in general. And it’s a way to honor the creative passion of both his mother and his daughter.
The gift is also a challenge. “If a contractor from West Virginia can do this,” Esbenshade says, “what could you maybe do?” For his part, he adds, “I’ve never missed a dollar I gave away.”