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Duke University Arts

Jul 31, 2015

Aaron Greenwald Tells All


(photo by Tom Rankin)
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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 60-70 shows per season—an 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.

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 Tory 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.)

In the 2014-15 season, Duke Performances ...

  • had a total audience of 35,000 people across 80 presentations,
  • sold 8,000 subsidized tickets to Duke students, and
  • presented 50 artist residency events serving over 3,000 Durham students and community members.

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 DP 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 DP brings to campus.

-Robert Zimmerman

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.

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 has probably informed a portion of our programming more intensively than any other program on campus. Those are students who are going to be working in the performing arts.

And looking from that side of things, I know it’s been fantastic for them to work with groups like yMusic and the Bad Plus, not only to have their music played by top-notch musicians with national reputations but also to make professional connections that can be hugely important as they move forward.

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?

Yes, I think that's true. I think I made some mistakes, and I’ve had a real evolution with my thinking about classical music. Before I came, there was this series called The Duke Artist Series. It had five or six subscription concerts—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.

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 could be that great, music by international artists could be that great, but we're not going to present a jazz musician like Brad Mehldau and call it a piano recital.

We have a piano recital series, a vocal ensemble series and a chamber music series. It's nice to present soloists and smaller ensembles because there's an intimacy to it, and with Baldwin Auditorium we have a great venue for that. We have the advantage of having the resources to present that music and an audience that’s receptive to it, so we can punch above our weight.

Baldwin’s renovation has been a big deal, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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. One thing that often happens is that faculty come to us and they want to bring a great Brazilian singer to campus, or something. They say, “I want to bring Gilberto Gil, why don't we bring Gilberto Gil?" I think we're really good at saying, "Okay, that's cool, but let's think about what you're trying to achieve and let's make a list of who also fits the bill." Because maybe Gilberto Gil isn’t touring. Maybe he costs 75,000 dollars to book. Maybe he’s already playing at Carolina Performing Arts.

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 and say, “How can we make that happen?”

Collaboration is a real challenge. Especially collaborating with people who have different strengths than you or different expertise or even different orientations. That's a great thing to learn in the academy, but it's really hard. It’s challenging enough when faculty collaborate with other faculty. Imagine when they come to us and we have these business concerns and we have these production concerns and so forth.

We're really fortunate to have lots of bright people here and great resources and hopefully we’re being smart and finding new ways to make those collaborations work. But I think there needs to be more recognition that the presenter brings expertise to the table, just like the academic does.

Jul 20, 2015

The Beverly McIver Experience Comes to Duke

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 Art, and her intermediate painting class is in session. The final assignment is a self-portrait, so many of the students are quietly brushing paint onto bold, larger-than-life versions of themselves. The atmosphere is quiet concentration, but as McIver begins to introduce them it becomes clear that she and her students have developed tremendous rapport. She makes her way from one to the next to point out their accomplishments and describe their background and their painting style. Also, she tells stories. She teases. She throws her head back and laughs.

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.”

Down the line, Alex Gordon, an animated sophomore, is meticulously detailing her self-portrait. “You caught me in the worst moment,” she says, laughing.

“She's struggling but doing a great job,” McIver explains.

I ask what makes it a struggle and McIver chimes in. “Yeah Alex, tell him!”

The issue is pretty simple. The end of the semester is looming and Gordon is not satisfied with her work. "I could finish it,” she says, “I just like to go over it a lot. It's tough when you're on a deadline.”

“She hits the panic button, I have to stop her,” McIver says, adding, “I’ll tell you when to panic.”

Tyler Wakefield, the last stop on our tour, is painting his father. The snapshot he’s working from has some miscellaneous household items in the background which he had dutifully reproduced on his canvas. On McIver’s advice, he's just finished painting them out.

“That’s way better,” she says, as the two of them inspect the result. “It really opens up your father's face.”

“You want to put it all in there, like it's going to be your last painting,” McIver explains, but “the artist’s job is to edit.” This is a point she backs up with her work. If she leaves anything in the background of her portraits, it’s typically just an object or two that contribute to the meaning and composition of the piece. The rest, like the odds and ends in the photograph of Tyler’s father, she edits out.

The Story Behind the Esbenshade Professorship

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.”

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McIver’s personal studio is an airy space on the second floor of Smith Warehouse, a short walk from the classroom. As we approach it, the sight that greets us through the window is Alex Gordon jumping vigorously on a mini-trampoline—apparently she's come over ahead of us to burn off some nervous energy. “I always close the blinds when I do that so I'm not caught,” McIver jokes.

McIver had just moved in a week earlier but it seems she’s wasted no time making the space her own. In one corner, there's a cluster of self-portraits. Next to them, a few portraits of her father, who, she explains, had just turned 89. The two paintings of McIver’s cousin Sharon across the room are especially arresting. “She's been a subject of mine for the last five or six years,” McIver says. “She has diabetes, and last summer lost her only remaining leg. She's been a real trouper letting me photograph her in the hospital after these amputations.”

Sharon is shown in a recliner, draped in IV and oxygen tubes, her eyes closed. On one of the canvases the stumps of her legs are front and center. On both, she's surrounded by the cold, sterile fixtures of a hospital room—an unusually detailed background for McIver, and it speaks volumes about Sharon’s situation.

Duke has long had an introductory painting class but the department had little to offer beyond that. The situation has changed thanks to the Esbenshade Professorship. The primary mandate of the position is to teach intermediate and advanced painting or drawing. With nearly two decades of experience teaching art majors in university art departments, first at Arizona State University and then at her alma mater, North Carolina Central University, not to mention an obvious aptitude for teaching, McIver is ideal for the role.

McIver was also hired for her artistic achievement. Her work has been shown in the National Portrait Gallery and can be found in the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Weatherspoon Art Museum, and Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art, among others. In describing her accomplishments, Pedro Lasch, her colleague in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies, notes “her incredible exhibition record, how she keeps reinventing herself, and how she professionally collaborates with all kinds of people in different areas. It’s so great to have a colleague joining the department with that kind of profile.” 

The accomplishment is all the more remarkable considering her upbringing. She spent her childhood in the projects in Greensboro, North Carolina, daughter of a single mother who worked as a housekeeper for white families. (“Some Duke students may not have experience mingling with someone who grew up on welfare,” she said in an interview with Duke Today. “I’m excited about bringing that difference to Duke.”) Her older sister Renee is mentally disabled, and after the death of their mother, McIver took her sister in. Their life together is the basis for the 2011 HBO documentary Raising Renee

Lasch has found that early in their art studies, students tend to connect best with teachers who take a personal, biographical approach to their work. McIver is just such an artist. She expresses herself mainly in self-portraits and portraits of those close to her and through them she channels the human condition. Her best known and most controversial work, in which she portrays herself in blackface, is rooted in one of the most surprising realms of her experience. When she was younger she was an avid clown, so much so that she applied (unsuccessfully) to Clown College. Wearing whiteface was a routine part of her clowning. As that became more problematic for her she hit on the idea of wearing blackface and found it to be “a liberation from the white face and the idea of wanting to be a clown in a predominantly white school where everybody was white faced.” Translating that feeling of liberation, with all its irony, into her artwork is, for McIver, a way to neutralize the stereotypes of blackness.

With her remarkable life story and her striking, challenging work, McIver will no doubt be an inspiration to many students. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that she’s an expert painter whose primary function at Duke is to teach the art and craft of painting—how to mix colors, how to work from dark to light, the effect of canvas size, what to leave in and what to edit out.

Ferguson, who had no experience using oil paints and worked his way up to a wonderfully effective family portrait and some “pretty swell” irises, feels that he has learned more about painting in one semester with McIver than he could have anywhere else. He describes broader lessons, too, in “giving and receiving criticism, perseverance, and collaboration.”

Working with McIver has been a rich experience on many levels for Alex Gordon. “I admire her spirit and enthusiasm for painting along with teaching,” Gordon says. “She really is a vibrant person and that shows through her artwork. She also tries to bring that spirit out in us through our painting.” But before spirit, McIver had to bring out some painting—Gordon’s artistic specialty is charcoal drawing, so like Ferguson she had to start with the basics. She also worked closely with McIver to spearhead an extracurricular project, “Before I Die”—a chalkboard mounted on the construction fence by the Bryan Center that invited passersby to share a lifetime ambition.

By studying with a teacher who has been able to observe and interact with her as she goes about her work, Gordon has learned broad lessons about the creative process, as well. McIver “taught me a lot about painting but also about myself,” Gordon says. “She taught me that the hardest part to painting or anything really is not the beginning but the end. She also taught me that you must not ignore something because it's ‘too hard’ to fix, rather take a deep breath and fix it, no matter how difficult it may be.”

Jun 24, 2015

A Grammy, a Guggenhiem, and Two Shots of Critical Acclaim


Eric Oberstein (second from left)

Pinar Yoldas

Thomas Brothers

Bill Seaman and John Supko
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Duke Alumnus Eric Oberstein '07, associate director of Duke Performances, won a Grammy Award as producer of Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s recording The Offense of the Drum, which was voted Best Latin Jazz Album. It was his second nomination for the Grammy Award. Oberstein had previously won a Latin GRAMMY Award as producer of Arturo O'Farrill's Final Night at Birdland

See Duke Today for more about his background and his work with Duke Performances and with O’Farrill.


Duke University art history and visual studies PhD student Pinar Yoldas was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work on the interface between art and biology. The fellowships "are intended for men and women who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts." Of the 175 fellowships awarded this year out of an applicant pool of 3100, three went to members of the Duke academic community.

Yoldas's project is to turn air pollution into ink. Once the ink is produced, she will hand it over to writers and ask them this question: "What would you write with this poisonous ink that is literally the air we breathe?"


Louis Armstrong Master of Modernism, the latest book by Duke music professor Thomas Brothers, was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in the category Biography or Autobiography. In selecting the book, the Pulitzer committee described it as "the masterfully researched second volume of a life of the musical pioneer, effectively showing him in the many milieus where he lived and worked in the 1920s and 1930s."

Since its release in February 2015, Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism has garnered enthusiastic reviews from critics and scholars alike. Loren Schoenberg, artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, writes that “Brothers has brought together startling new discoveries and insights, a fresh look at hallowed recordings, and an understanding of the multifold influences that helped shape Louis Armstrong. In so doing, he has written by far the most complete and original look at an American icon whose influence continues into its second century.”

Brothers discussed his new book on WUNC’s "The State of Things." and NPR’s "Dinner Party Download".


Finally, “s_traits,” by Hunt Family Assistant Professor of Music John Supko and Professor of Visual Studies Bill Seaman, was listed among the best classical recordings by 2014 in the New York Times. According to critic Vivien Schweitzer,

[t]his hypnotic disc is derived from more than 110 hours of audio sourced from field recordings, digital noise, documentaries and piano music. A software program developed by the composer John Supko juxtaposed samples from the audio database into multitrack compositions; he and the media artist Bill Seaman then finessed the computer’s handiwork into these often eerily beautiful tracks.

Jun 24, 2015

ArtCon Duke 2015: Arts and Creativity Summit

ArtCon Duke 2015, the first student-led arts and creativity summit at Duke University, was held on March 20th & 21st, in the Bryan University Center on Duke’s West Campus. ArtCon is a new initiative to celebrate and develop the vibrant arts culture of the Duke and Durham community, draw attention to the role of the arts in higher education, and ensure our country’s continuing leadership in creativity and innovation in the Arts in the twenty-first century. It provided an opportunity for students, alumni, faculty, administrators, and local artists to come together and brainstorm about The Arts at Duke. 

The weekend featured “Art-Storm” sessions, student performances, pop-up events by #artstigators – the Crazies for the Arts at Duke, music, food, and fun; expert-led industry workshops for students that focused on film/television, fashion, sports, music, marketing/public relations, and graphic design, and closed with a gala reception where students and alumni networked and continued to share thoughts and ideas about the weekend.

Andrew Jacbos, ’16 a Theatre Studies and Public Policy double major, and also pursuing an Innovation and Entrepreneurship certificate, had this to say, “As an arts student looking ahead into a future in arts administration, I learned much from Duke alumni and local artists who shared their personal experiences in the theatre, film, and comedy industry. It was also great to see my fellow students become so invested in alumni's stories and inspired by all of their work.” Andrew helped plan the art-storm sessions, moderated the Arts Entrepreneurship art-storm session, conceived and planned the a cappella performance, one of the highlights of ArtCon.

ArtCon was conceived by duARTS in collaboration with #artstigators, visArts, and student organizations that foster a creative, collaborative, diverse, and accessible community of Duke students engaged in the arts.  The intention of ArtCon was to create a “space” where students could invest in the larger arts framework, and have an impact that lasts longer than their individual time at Duke. Yuyi Li, ‘17, a double major in English and Psychology, and one of the students who helped plan the Gala, said of ArtCon, “The great turnout and enthusiasm at the event provided me with encouragement and excitement to continue working in the arts both at Duke and in the future. Events like this help students see that there is a huge arts presence at Duke and outside of Duke. Bringing everyone together really garners a spirit for creativity and for the arts!”

The goal is for ArtCon to become an annual event that students and the community can look forward to every year, and also be an ongoing resource of student input for the University’s arts efforts. 

Below is a summary of the ArtCon ArtStorm sessions and some of the big ideas that came out of those discussions 

Art-Storm Sessions 
The Art-Storm sessions were an opportunity for students, alumni, faculty, community artists, and administrators to come together to brainstorm ideas, opportunities, and goals for the Duke-Durham Arts community through informal discussions. The sessions opened with remarks from Scott Lindroth, Vice Provost for the Arts and Professor of Music, who welcomed participants, and shared plans for the new Arts Center soon to be built on campus. The Art-Storm session topics included (list session names).

The Arts Entrepreneurship discussion was facilitated by Andrew Jacobs, A Cappella Council Chair. The goal of this session was to identify ways to build a relationship between problem solving, the arts, and entrepreneurship.

The Arts Center session, facilitated by Scott Lindroth, Vice Provost for the Arts, Reem Alfahad, Executive Vice President of duARTS and Ryan Gaylord, President of duARTS focused on ideas for how the new creative spaces to come in the new arts center. Student accessibility to equipment, supported by workshops to gain experience in handling production equipment and tools is one of the programmatic feature of the news center already taking place.

The Arts and Activism session facelifted by Miranda Goodwin-Raab, President, Arts Annex Student Advisory Board looked at how the arts can leverage marginalized voices and bridge communities, create social change at Duke and build ties between Duke and Durham, bring community members and activists into the conversation, for example, gentrification in Durham, and design ways that art can be used to address these issues.

Arts and Academia, facilitated by Mike Myers, Theater Council Chair discussed ways students can benefit from stronger relationships between the Arts, arts organizations, and other disciplines:

Theory vs. Practice

It was difficult to talk about the arts at Duke without encountering the theory-practice distinction, and it came up in a few different ways. Most student artists know that an arts education at a liberal arts school like Duke is going to differ from an arts education at, say, a conservatory; however, the majority of Duke artists seem to always want more arts practice in their education. That is, there are far fewer students arguing a Duke arts education should have more theory. Some would not go so far as to argue that their arts major should have more practice, but instead would argue that an arts student should not be able to graduate with an arts degree without significant arts practice under their belt. Students recounted cases where others graduated without a practical experience of the Arts, and argued that practice is integral to an understanding of the Arts, even for an understanding of arts theory. Some might altogether refuse the distinction between arts theory and practice, claiming that an understanding of the practice is integral to our understanding of the theory.

Read more frm the Arts and Academia ArtStorm session here.

The Student Collaboration and Arts Communication in/outside of Duke session, facilitated by Nicole Payne, VP of Marketing, duARTS and Anshu Vipparla, Dance Council Chair (duARTS President 2015-2016) focused on arts organizations and ways to build more collaboration between these groups, to create a larger visibility of the arts on campus.   Below are the top five big ideas and goals that resulted from this session:

Top 5 Big Ideas

First-Year Programming

Create an Art Tradition

Incentive system

Building an “Arts Community”

Innovative Publicity


Streamline events so there aren’t too many arts activities going on at once, but rather combine different areas of dance or visual art in order to create more impactful events

Passport to the ARTS- create events early and have a full calendar of programming so we can publicize everything together and have arts events become more organized as a whole

Create a Duke Arts Tradition that

Is large and visible

Makes a statement, such as large robotic dragon fights

Creates for no reason

Works into Duke Culture - gardens events raise the same sort of hype that larger events like Old Duke and Me Too has on campus


ArtsCon Participants - Industry Experts (alumni and community artists)

Comedy + Theater + Dance

Laura Valk, Writer’s Assistant, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”

Madeleine Lambert, Actress/Director/Narrator/Adjunct Duke Theater Studies

Talya Klein, Director/Adjunct Duke Theater Studies

Leah Wilks, Dancer/Choreographer @ VECTOR

Liz Simons, Comedian/Blogger

Jamie Kaye-Phillips, Broadway Producer


Design + Marketing + PR

Jean Cormier, Recruiter, McKinney

Kelley Rohrs, Senior VP, Edelman (PR)

Thea Neal, Digital/Social Media, Fleishman-Hillard (PR)

Kyle Glackin, Account Executive, Wieden + Kennedy


Fashion + Visual Arts & Media

Catherine Fuentes, Managing Editor, Buzzfeed Life

Ned Phillips, Filmmaker/Director

Gabriel Eng-Goetz, Artist/Designer/Entrepreneur

Ginger Spivey, Independent Art Historian and Educational Consultant

Kim Shui, Fashion Designer

Chelsea Pieroni, Content Curator, Offline Media (Raleigh)

Laura Ritchie, Co-Founder, Director, The Carrack Modern Art


Storytelling: Publishing & Documentary Film

Annie Franceschi, Writer/Designer/Entrepreneur

Adrienne Martin, Managing Editor, Duke Magazine

Chuck Adams, Executive Editor, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill)

Catherine Orr, Filmmaker, StoryMineMedia

Elena Rue, Filmmaker, StoryMineMedia (teaches at CDS)


Music Performance & Production

Mailande Moran, Writer/Musician/Entrepreneur

Brittany Holljes, Vocalist/Musician @ Delta Rae

Liz Hopkins, Vocalist/Musician @ Delta Rae

Cameron Thompkins, Sound Designer/Composer

Becky Martinez, Producer @ WUNC’s “Morning Edition”

Hady Mawajdeh, Producer @ WUNC’s “State of Things”

Shirlette Ammons, Poet/Musician/Author


TV + Film + Sports Media

Craig Lazarus, VP, ESPN

Cory Greenberg, Director of Legal & Business Affairs @ A+E Networks (A&E, History, Lifetime, fyi, LMN, and H2)

Courtney Fischer, Manager, Wasserman Media Group

Becky Davis, Associate Producer, National Geographic Travel



ArtCon would not have been successful without the tireless support of

Reem Alfahad & Pranava Raparla, ArtCon 2015 Co-chairs

Scott Lindroth, Vice Provost for the Arts, Professor of Music

Amy Unell, #artstigator & Allison Shumar, UCAE Program Assistant, ArtCon Advisors

Ross Wade, Lindy McGrail, Meg Wilson, Duke Career Center

Yuyi Li and Charlotte McKay, ArtCon Gala organizers

Meaghan Li, ArtCon logo design

Tom Meyer, Farmers Table Restaurant Group

Heather Jernigan and UCAE Conference and Event Services


Additional acknowledgments for support from the following organizations:

duARTS, #artstigators, Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts, Duke Career Center, VisArts, DukeArts, Duke University Union, Duke Alumni, Center for Documentary Studies, Arts Annex, Student Organization Finance Committee, Duke Student Government, University Center for Activities and Events, AdSpice &, Center for Multicultural Affairs, Center for Leadership Development, and Fraternity & Sorority Life.


May 12, 2015

Ciompi Quartet Presents 2015 Summer Chamber Music Series In Duke Gardens (Sold Out)

The Duke Department of Music, Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts and Sarah P. Duke Gardens are pleased to announce 2015 Ciompi Quartet Presents, a summer chamber music series in Duke Gardens.  This year the series celebrates its fourth season which, by all measures, has been a phenomenal success. Many of the concerts sell-out, audiences express delight during and after the concerts end, and the musicians continue to bring excellence in artistry coupled with greater knowledge about the composers and the music they create.  The central theme of these special concerts has been the intimate environment and the opportunity to hear from the Quartet their individual curatorial insights. This summer the series begins with a program presented by Eric Pritchard that explores connections between the Baroque and Classical music periods through works by the sons of J. S. Bach. Jonathan Bagg will present a musical study of contrasts–composers, styles and virtuosity, and Fred Raimi will end the series with a program featuring works by three of classical music’s greatest composers – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Join us and share the heart and soul of music that inspires and connects composers, musicians and audiences.

Make the 2015 Ciompi Quartet Presents chamber music series one of your must-see events this summer.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015 (SOLD OUT)

Eric Pritchard presents MOZART’S PLAYGROUND, a concert tracing the stylistic development of music from the Baroque period to the Classical era through works by the sons of J. S. Bach. Andrew Willis (fortepiano), renowned for his work in Baroque performance, will join Pritchard (violin) who will perform on baroque violin. Jonathan Bagg (viola) and Fred Raimi (cello) will also join Pritchard for this first concert in the summer series. Works will include C. P. E. Bach: Sonata in b minor for Keyboard and Violin, Wq76; J. C. Bach: Sonata in D Major for Keyboard and Violin, W B21; W. A. Mozart: Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat Major, K. 563.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015 (SOLD OUT)

Jonathan Bagg presents LIGHT AND SHADOW a performance where the world of color, light and shadow emerge in three strings and a flute: music of Mozart contrasts with Andrew Norman, Gunther Schuller, and Stephen Jaffe in a concert that bursts with stylistic variety and virtuosity. Bagg (viola) is joined by Gabriela Diaz (violin), Laura Gilbert (flute) and Robert Burkhart (cello). Works will include W. A. Mozart: Flute quartet in D Major; Andrew Norman: Light Screens; Gunther Schuller: Aphorisms; Stephen Jaffe: Figure-Ground (premiere).

Wednesday, August 12, 2015 (SOLD OUT)

Fred Raimi presents THREE Bs IN A MINOR KEY, an evening of great works by three of classical music’s greatest composers: Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. Raimi (cello) is joined by Rolf Schulte (violin), Kirsten Swanson (viola) and Jane Hawkins (piano). Works will include Bach: Sonata for Cello and Piano in g minor; Beethoven: String Trio in c minor, Op. 9, No. 3; Brahms: Piano Quartet in c minor, Op. 60.

Subscriptions are $60 and are on sale from May 5 through June 2.  

Single tickets are $25 General Public; $20 Non-Duke Students/Duke Employees; $10 Youth/Duke students. Single tickets go on sale beginning May 12.

Purchase tickets online at, in person at the Duke University Box Office, Bryan Center, weekdays 11am-6pm, or by calling 919-684-4444.

All concerts begin at 7:30pm and will take place in Kirby Horton Hall in the Doris Duke Center at Sarah P. Duke Gardens, 420 Anderson St, Durham, NC 27708.  Phone: 919-684-3698 for directions.


ABOUT THE CIOMPI QUARTET:  The Ciompi Quartet was founded at Duke University in 1965 by the renowned Italian violinist Giorgio Ciompi.  All its members are professors at Duke and play a leading role in the cultural life of the university and community, in addition to traveling widely throughout the year for performances.

Artists and program subject to change.  No ticket refunds. Parking is free after 5pm in Duke Gardens Parking lots. Note: Second violin Hsiao-mei Ku will be in China during summer with the Duke Engage program.

The series is presented by the Duke Department of Music, Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts and Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

In a career that includes many hundreds of concerts and spans five continents, the Ciompi Quartet has developed a reputation for performances of real intelligence and musical sophistication, and for a warm, unified sound that is enhanced by each player’s strong individual voice. With a maturity and insight born of wide experience, the Ciompi Quartet projects the heart and soul of the music with a repertoire that ranges from well-known masterpieces to works by today’s most communicative composers.

For more information on the Ciompi Quartet:  


Mar 26, 2015

Arts Internships Summer 2015

More than 60 arts organizations in Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill offer opportunities for internships!  

Arts classes open the door to learning about the arts, they expand your creativity and give you a chance to engage and immerse in the study of a particular art form, however, it is also important to develop real-world, practical skills to compliment your arts education.

Here you will find a list of more than 60 arts organizations located in Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill that can help you do just thatl  We provide this list so that you can investigate the different types of nternship opportunities available.  Experiences can vary from working in a gallery, shadowing a graphic designer, assisting with presenting performances, to marketing and publicizing events, or working on all aspects of producting an arts festival.  A variety of settings are available and all are located within the Triangle.

An internship in an arts organization will provide invaluable knowledge that will go a long way in helping you build your career in the arts.


Arts Administration Internships - Duke Performances seeks ambitious, highly-motivated, organized, and detail-oriented individuals at the undergraduate or graduate level with an interest in arts administration. Internship is a paid position. Contact Eric Oberstein to learn about nternship opportunities.


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Events @ Duke

Public Tour

August 2, 2015 | 2:00 PM

Tour with your Tot

August 6, 2015 | 11:00 AM

Public Tour

August 6, 2015 | 6:00 PM