Q&A with new Duke Arts Director of Programming Aaron Shackelford

Welcome to Duke Arts, Aaron Shackelford!

Vice Provost for the Arts, John V. Brown, is pleased to introduce Aaron Shackelford, the newest member of the Duke Arts Team. As Director of Programming, Aaron’s role is to develop a robust season of performances and exhibitions for Duke Arts, spanning across performance, visual, literary, and experimental arts. Aaron’s role is highly collaborative, and he is looking forward to working with partners both on and off-campus. Aaron is still getting to know Duke, but he’s no stranger to the area – he holds a Master’s and Doctorate in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For the past decade, Aaron has been at the forefront of integrating the arts into academic institutions and presenting innovative creative experiences. Aaron shares how his arts programming career started, experiences that have impacted his work, his creative practice and what led him to Duke Arts in this insightful Q&A.

How did you become interested in arts programming?

I came to this field from a slightly unusual path. Throughout grad school I was working for Honors Carolina, building interdisciplinary opportunities for students. That included a program where we would bring students to Carolina Performing Arts events and talk with artists. I started falling in love with how magical those evenings were, both the performances and the conversations that these future doctors and lawyers were having with artists from around the globe. CPA then recruited me to apply for a post-doc position to support a new program they were launching to integrate the arts at UNC, called Arts@TheCore. I took the plunge and the rest is history!

You have a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature (from UNC Chapel Hill, which we’ll forgive). How does that background contribute to your work today?

I get asked this question a lot, and my answer has changed over time. I used to emphasize how my training gave me the ability to quickly analyze and absorb cultural knowledge, to be able to approach a new work of art and assess its aesthetics and social impact and contextualize that into a larger set of needs.

Maybe that’s part of it, but my real answer is from all the teaching I did as part of my degree. You learn to connect with students, to listen and engage, and understand what makes for a meaningful pedagogical moment.

I learned to be comfortable in front of a huge classroom, how to mentor and encourage students, and even how to have hard conversations both in and outside of the classroom. I often think I learned more in the classroom than my students, and I still carry the mindset that they have more to teach me than I have to teach them. It’s the same outlook I carry into my conversations with artists or faculty or community collaborators as well, and I think that’s one of the most valuable lessons I got with my Ph.D. (Also, Go Heels.)

Aaron Shackelford in the theatre

You most recently served as the director of Georgia Tech Arts, which frequently presents works that integrate technology with the arts. What are your favorite examples of technological innovation to artistic practice?

At Georgia Tech Arts we were interested in how students, faculty and artists could come together to create something collaboratively, rather than thinking about technology as a simple tool that could add projection or XR to an existing work. The most exciting innovations took place when artists and researchers inspired each other. We commissioned a dance work called “Step the Brain Along a Path,” which brought together dance and neuroscience. The choreographer, Troy Schumacher, learned so much about neuroethics and neuroscience in his research, but he also helped the scientists develop new ways to share their work and engage the public in the important conversations about the ethics of their research.

The magic happens when the people who are experts in the technology are inspired by the artist, and in turn suggest new ways the artist can tell their story or create an experience.

Even when we did present already developed work, such as the powerful VR installation Traveling While Black that tells the story of restrictions of race and travel in the US, it was with an eye towards inspiring our students and community to find ways to tell other important stories in collaboration with artists.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of working in the arts at an academic institution?

Getting to watch artists inspire our students and faculty, and in turn being inspired by them. Often it is not what happens on stage, but what happens in the classroom or lobby or over a boxed lunch that creates a spark of insight that no lecture or lab can replicate. When I see students experience insights through their encounter with a work, or when I see an artist have that “a-ha” moment in conversation with a faculty member, I know how fortunate I am to be working in the arts in higher education.

Is there a specific art form you are most passionate about, and why?

As I’m afraid many of you will see, I can get teary-eyed from any art form, even just talking about it. I’ve always been drawn to dance, both for the stunning power of the human body in movement and for the incredibly dexterous thinking that I have found choreographers bring to their work, especially when they are collaborating outside of their field. Literature and film are, of course, what I studied throughout my own education, and both still fill me with such joy. But my actual personal creative practice is photography. I’m never happier than when I’m in the dark room developing prints. You’ll never see my work up in the Nasher, and I never learned Photoshop, but I do love filling my spaces with photos from my own work and from my artist friends.

What do you find most exciting about your new role with Duke Arts?

The opportunity to support such a wide range of artistic practices and mediums drew me to the role in the first place. I am inspired that Duke Arts is not only the traditional performing arts practices, but also cinema and literature and visual and experimental arts, and so many more fields of creativity.

I’ve found over the years that artists do not necessarily restrict themselves by genre or medium, and so it’s exciting to be at an organization that wants to be equally wide-ranging in the artists and arts experiences we support.

Alongside that, I am thrilled to be at a place that has so many faculty and students who are passionately dedicating their time to these artistic fields, whether in scholarship or their own practice. I loved all my engineering and technology colleagues, but I am excited to be part of a much larger community of arts professionals and students while also having an opportunity to collaborate with the many other disciplines across Duke. Finally, it’s a true privilege to be living in the Triangle again. North Carolina felt like my true home from the moment I first moved here, and I know how lucky I am to be back.

Aaron Shackelford joins several new team members at Duke Arts. Learn more about Our Staff.