On September 22, the U.S. Senate approved Obama’s appointment of Emil Kang to the National Council on the Arts, the advising body for the National Endowment for the Arts. Kang, who is the executive director of the arts and a professor of the practice of music at UNC-Chapel Hill, also helms Carolina Performing Arts, which is presenting a year of programming entitled “The Rite of Spring at 100” that engages Igor Stravinsky’s landmark piece. Recess Editor Michaela Dwyer chatted with Kang about his new position, his cultural work in Detroit and the state of the arts in contemporary universities. The following are excerpts from their conversation, which began with their shared enthusiasm for Irish theater and then progressed toward the value of art in society.
EK: …Art is a shared experience, so we don’t value it. For us that shared experience is basketball games. That’s when everyone comes together. I’m a sports fan, don’t get me wrong. Why isn’t seeing a ballet as important as seeing basketball? Why is it only for a certain group of people? We have a chance to effect policy in higher education. Here [at UNC] we talk about having a control group of those who don’t do anything but then also those who participate in the arts. Can we look at the effect that arts participation has on the their achievement ....measured by not just GPA—but also by scholarships, grad school attendance, job employment—and create a direct correlation between that [artistic] participation and other success? And of course beyond that, their success as adults, as contributing citizens in society…
R: Because that’s the whole point, right? Living in and contributing to society in a meaningful way.
EK: Until we can demonstrate that kind of direct value [of art] we’re always going to struggle with this. And now, it’s all about...cutting the NEA. I don’t want this to be a political discussion…especially in election season, when it’s all rhetoric. I think you know what I feel. [Cutting the NEA] is not even an imaginable truth to me. If that happens, I’d…become a hermit.
R: And that’s so depressing, so antithetical to the idea of shared experience—what art really seems to be!
EK: Perhaps we’ll have to even work harder, but I don’t know how you work harder. It’s the same thing over and over again. It was 1989-90 when Jesse Helms and others really tried to abolish the NEA. [There was discussion about] “what is art?” and “why should government be involved with the deciding of the art?”
[There’s] this idea that creation is always inherently a risk. We’ve commissioned twelve pieces for The Rite of Spring project and we don’t know what’s going to happen. For us, that’s emblematic of The Rite of Spring as a piece... in the beginning of modernism, with the idea of upending everything that was normal. If we don’t do that at a university, where are we going to do it?
That’s what the National Council on the Arts is pushing. We can go to Washington and talk about these things and do those things [at UNC]. One part is our student body’s own experiences and the second part is changing the culture of the university to value [art] more and the third is bringing artists in to showcase the exemplars of creativity and performance. Art is not created in a vacuum; it’s a living, breathing thing…this idea that we can demonstrate the value of the creative process [and] we can show people that art is made over time.
R: You’re a practicing musician. Do you see a lot of people who are involved in arts at an administrative level who are actually practicing, playing artists? Do you think a lot of the people ‘running’ the arts are actually artists? And do you think it informs the way you do things in your job?
EK: The answer implies a judgment and I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t know if I’ve always believed this, but right now I do. I think that all things being equal, I think having someone [who practices art] is always better. But all things are never equal. You need someone who’s been a curator or a performer, and in another situation you need a fundraiser, a consensus-builder and you need a board that can identify the difference. As you get older you stop saying these absolutes because you know they’re not true. For me the absolutes I have are in the value of arts in society. That’s an absolute truth.
R: This year at Full Frame [Documentary Film Festival] I saw Detropia, which is a sort of visually spectacular film about contemporary Detroit. One of the main focuses of the film was the Detroit Opera House and about their financial difficulties and long saga of struggle. You came to UNC right after you led the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. What was the transition like, when the whole economy collapsed?
EK: There’s no single answer to that. I love Detroit. I was at a meeting and someone made fun of Detroit. It was like someone was insulting my mother. There’s this very incredible vulnerability of some nakedness, some rawness that you can’t hide by window-dressing, so you see bones of a place. The glory, tragedy and triumph—it’s all in front of you. That’s why so many photographers and writers use Detroit as a subject. And the arts organizations have been a central part of the city’s survival, of its cultural survival. What happens when the economy tanks is people start leaving and institutions break. The opera house borrowed all this money; the city keeps going downhill. [Then] I was 35 and over my head.
Going back…my whole life is defined by taking risks. When I was graduating from college, I had job opportunities [in banking]. I ended up taking a job as receptionist in an art gallery in New York City. My parents said, “Are you kidding me?” It was like a moment of, “We moved to this country for this?” It was a gallery that sold frames, and my mother used it as a metaphor for my life: an empty frame. But all this is to say, these are all things that test you. And I tell students all the time that if you don’t have those moments you aren’t trying hard enough. When I teach, too, there’s always this idea that whatever you do—mowing the lawn, picking up mail, ordering a sub at Subway, whatever it is— that you actually focus…
R: Actually be in it.
EK: Be in it. I’m full of clichés today, but there are no other chances like this. You can apply this metaphor in so many ways: How boring are the liberal arts if you take the same classes that you always take? That’s not life, that’s prison! I grew up in New York City, and my mother would take me to a remote area in Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx and just drop me off and say, “Find your way home! You can speak English!” She thought that was actually a good …what’s the word? “Character-builder.” That’s crazy! But this allowed me to…take risks on [my] own. [It’s about] being confident in what you know, and what you don’t know, and what you believe in, and finding a way to articulate that.