After 17 months under the steady hand of Eric Oberstein, who has been interim director since Aaron Greenwald departed, Duke Performances has a new leader.

For Bobby Asher, who starts the job on September 1, the move is a homecoming to academia. Though Asher spent the past year as the interim director of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut, the bulk of his career has been spent at universities such as the University of Maryland, doing the same kind of work he’ll be doing at Duke Performances.

With so much uncertainty stretching between now and September, it would be premature to talk to Asher about his plans for Duke Performances, but we wanted to learn more about his past and perspective as he prepares to lead one of the area’s most prestigious performing-arts institutions. 

We found his casualness refreshing and his focus on engaging students, listening to the community, and broadening his horizons promising, and a good fit for Durham.

INDY: You’re coming to us after a year at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut. 

BOBBY ASHER: Like everybody else, we had to unravel a year’s worth of work in about two weeks and look at what we could provide our community now. We focused on helping the local artistic ecology and the restaurant scene. We’re doing virtual food events where people go to local restaurants and pick up ingredients, and then Zoom in for a cooking event. After this is all over, I don’t want to hear the word “pivot” for at least a decade, but we tried to take the resources that we had and help the local community.

We’re also doing something called Arts on Call, where folks can order a performance by a local artist at a particular time. The artist shows up at a place of their choosing and performs a little set. This was a way to bring joy to folks in a socially distanced way and also get artists working again, and that’s been really successful. We’re moving into another phase where we’re sending those artists to care homes and essential workers, other places where people might need some joy from the arts during this astonishingly strange time. 

So it’s going pretty well logistically, and people are showing up?

Yeah, I think New Haven is a lot like Durham in this way. It seems like Durham’s a place where people show up, people are involved in their community. 

One component of the festival is the Ideas program, talks from authors and thought leaders from around the country, and this year our theme is democracy. We tried to make it less about really smart people talking at our community from a dais and more about participation, starting by having listening sessions with our community. Last night there was a discussion about the artist’s role in democracy with the poet Richard Blanco, Katy Rubin from Theatre of the Oppressed, the great indigenous playwright Larissa FastHorse, and Angelique Kidjo, the great singer. We’re talking about everything from prison abolition to fair housing to truth in journalism, all the things that our community told us that they wanted to talk about. 

That’s a very democratic approach to democracy. You spent a much longer time as the programming director at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, right?

Yeah, almost my whole career has been spent in university settings. One of the biggest innovations we did in my time at Maryland was to focus the programming on serving the student body, and not just in a way that’s about, you know, I’m required by one of my professors to go to this performance—which is an absolutely great thing to do!—but to put things on stage and in a format that students were excited about. 

We started the NextNOW Fest because we wanted students to realize that they could have an artistic and cultural experience as part of their college education, to be welcomed into our facility, and to know that we’re available and interesting. I’ve learned that when folks of my generation and older bemoan the fact that young people don’t like the arts, what they’re really saying is they don’t like my arts. There’s participation in hundreds of things, from Bonnaroo to Burning Man to online cultures, that belie that misinterpretation. There’s never been a time in history when people had more tools to be creative. I’ve gotten to be a real TikTok fan. 

So anyway, we asked students what they wanted to see, and students now curate most of it, rather than me, a 41-year-old white, straight, cis-male, deciding what I think is interesting and cool. My approach is to open up that conversation and be a person that has a very well-developed and well-researched personal aesthetic but also serves an institutional aesthetic that brings as many voices into the curation as I possibly can. And what better way to attract people to an experience than to just ask them what they want that experience to be?

We presented some really interesting artists: Reggie Watts, JPEGMAFIA, cupcakKe. These are names I’m not necessarily listening to at home on a regular basis, and I don’t need to. What I need to do is find talented folks at the student level who are in the culture and give them the support they need to bring things like that to their fellow students. 

I’m sure younger readers will be encouraged that you know the power of TikTok and aren’t scratching your head as to why they’re not showing up in droves for the Emerson String Quartet.

This is the beautiful thing about the arts: There’s nothing I love better than sitting in an acoustically excellent room like Baldwin Auditorium listening to a virtuoso on stage playing music from the 1700s on an instrument built around that time in a way that can bring tears to your eyes. The beautiful thing about what we do, because it’s so episodic, is we can do that, and we can put JPEGMAFIA in the lobby and bring the house down. I’m very resistant to the generational false choice that you have to do one or the other. Because I love the Emerson, but I also love things that are from a completely different genre and generational space. 

I was going to ask about your view of the role of the performing arts at a teaching university, but I think you’ve mostly answered it. 

A lot of university administrators use the phrase that athletics are the “front porch” of the university, a way that we connect with our community and the outside world. Well, I think that the arts should be that, but they should also kind of be the kitchen of the university: places where we can have our family meetings, where we can discuss really challenging topics, where we invite in our neighbors. They should be extensions of the laboratories and classrooms and studios on our campus, an extension of the research of our faculty, connected to the learning of our students in as many ways as possible. 

Any performing arts series is going to be influenced by the passions of its director. Between music, dance, and theater, is there a particular center to your passion for the arts? 

My parents were intensely religious people and all I was really allowed to listen to was Southern gospel music and some bluegrass. That was my musical origin, and even now, if I hear those church chords on a Hammond B-3 organ through a Leslie cabinet, it still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It’s something I’m really connected to. 

I think that sense of limitation gives me an appreciation for the breadth of things that you can explore in the world of the arts. I can’t say that there’s any center to it, other than trying to be in as many experiences as I can. I average about 200 live performances a year. The idea that you can go from hearing a really beautiful Mahler to some rough-and-tumble downtown theater to a bluegrass festival—“eclecticism” is an overused word, but I try to never not experience something that I have the opportunity to experience.

In theater, I tend to lean toward sort of issues-based work, things that are about something in a very direct way. I don’t like to go to the theater and get beat over the head with work that’s too on the nose, but I do like work that addresses the current moment and the hard questions that the country is wrestling with. 

And I also just love things that are beautiful. I love watching virtuoso artists, like a great jazz musician, do things that, very clearly, they were born to do. 

How are you feeling about starting a new job in a new city when things are so uncertain? 

It’s like the universe said, what’s the one thing that could really challenge artists? Take away the ability for people to gather in a space to experience something together. I’ve watched artists around the world really rise to that challenge. I think that whatever we do in this interim needs to keep people engaged, meet them where they are, but then also point toward a time when we will be able to gather again. I think that this will stretch us as presenters and artists into new areas. It’s going to force us to address the digital divide, but I think it’s also going to make people really appreciate sitting in a room with other people, experiencing something on a very human level.  


Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at bhowe@indyweek.com.

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