When I reflect on the most-unforgettable stage works I’ve seen in recent years, a striking number of them were presented by Carolina Performing Arts. 

Some were by artists seldom seen in the U.S. outside of major cities, such as the Belgian experimental-theater director Ivo van Hove’s Antigone. Others were by artists seldom seen in the U.S., period, such as the French-Canadian choreographer Marie Chouinard. In the past few months alone, we got Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s postmodern dance classic Rosas danst Rosas, Sarah Cahill’s five-hour marathon of piano music by women, and Michael Keegan-Dolan’s visionary Irish remix of Swan Lake

All were astounding; none, except maybe Rosas, were easy sells to patrons or stakeholders. If the goal were simply butts in seats, a university presenter could do well with less effort and imagination. 

But, like Duke Performances, Carolina Performing Arts has been shaped by its director’s ambition, passionately idiosyncratic taste, and impatience with the old ways of doing things. As CPA’s Emil Kang departs from the organization he founded in 2005, when he became UNC’s executive director for the arts, he leaves Chapel Hill a performing-arts program that even New York might envy—one with a restive momentum toward the future. 

Kang left UNC in October to become the program director for Arts and Cultural Heritage at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City. Professionally, it was a chance to test his core conviction about arts presenting—that the ticketed show is just a stalking horse for more expansive relationships between artists, institutions, and locals—on a well-funded international scale. 

But for Kang, everything is about personal relationships, and the clincher was his admiration for Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander. In this, his move to Mellon echoed his move to UNC fifteen years ago. 

“It was Chancellor [James] Moeser, to be perfectly frank,” Kang says, explaining why he gave up a career in orchestra management—he was president of the Detroit Symphony—to become UNC’s arts leader. 

Moeser, a musician himself, wanted to raise the stature of the arts at UNC, with Memorial Hall as a centerpiece—not just for campus, but for Chapel Hill. The auditorium had already seen its share of performers since the late-nineteenth century—though the original burned down, with the one we attend today replacing it in 1931. Before there was any such thing as Carolina Performing Arts, Little Richard played there. So did Yo-Yo Ma. But this amounted to a handful of shows per year, funded through student fees. With university staff and backing, Kang began to assemble robust fall-through-spring seasons. 

He had to, after the gauntlet he had thrown down to get the job.

As a part of his interview process, Kang recalls, he had to give a public talk on campus. Someone asked what his vision was, and he came up with a spontaneous reply.  

“I said that I wanted the arts to be as big as basketball, and everyone started to laugh,” he says. But that offhand comment set the tone for his ambitious—sometimes, wildly ambitious—tenure. A few years in, Carolina Performing Arts started experimenting with Memorial Hall, sometimes dropping the fire curtain and making people come in through the loading dock. Just recently, it booked rap artist Tierra Whack there for what was essentially an EDM tour stop. Some of it worked; some of it didn’t. 

To Kang, that’s not the point.  

“To me, the space shouldn’t be sacred. The work should be,” he says. “What I enjoyed was the constant reimagination of how we could work with artists in the community, never being satisfied with filling a house, or even with world premieres. It was much more about being at the forefront of how artists and communities should work together.” 

Though Kang has inarguably burnished UNC’s credentials as a magnet for world-class artists, to him, that was almost incidental. He seems to care less about results than about process—less about succeeding than about trying. He created extended residencies not because it was efficient, but because he wanted to see what would happen. He commissioned new works not because they would sell, but because he trusted the artists to do something interesting. 

“This might sound pollyannaish, but it’s not about high art or trying to keep up with the Joneses in New York and London and Paris,” Kang says. “It’s really been about sharing the relationships with artists I’ve accumulated over the years around the world with our community. I struggle with the binary nature of liking or disliking a show. This is going to sound lofty, but I don’t know how else to say it: I’ve always believed in humanity, and that we can create more opportunities for intimacy and personal relationships, more humility and vulnerability and understanding and openness.”

Kang’s tenure also saw the opening of CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio last year, a flexible, inviting small venue and studio by the Target on campus. Not long ago, it hosted the aforementioned piano marathon by Sarah Cahill. It lasted five hours, at cafe tables in a lighted space, and you could come and go at will. It couldn’t have happened at any other UNC venue, and it’s a lasting legacy of Kang’s drive to bring the arts out of the catacombs of tradition to meet people where they are. 

“These temples of art and the rituals of art attendance have to change,” he says. “I really believe that the Eurocentric tradition of sitting in the dark and doing nothing and behaving quietly is the way of the past. We aren’t going to throw that away, but we needed more opportunities to engage more broadly with audience experiences.”

Kang’s vision is also writ large in Arts Everywhere, an ambitious and amorphous initiative to integrate the arts into students’ daily lives, which has had results both whimsical—an early gambit placed pianos in public spaces all over campus—and practical, such as the installation of a free painting studio in Morrison Residence Hall. 

It all comes back to Kang’s challenge to UNC sports, a joke he was also serious about, demonstrating the kind of vaulting aspiration with which you can only fail upward. 

“When students came to UNC, one of their top four most-cited activities in high school was arts participation, and then when they got to UNC, that participation plummets,” Kang says. “Two-thirds of our student body participate in some athletic activity. Wouldn’t it be great if two thirds also participated in creative expression in some form?” 

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

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