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Recess Interviews: Eric Oberstein

Eric Oberstein, Trinity ’07, recently returned to Duke—from serving as Executive Director of the New York City-based Afro Latin Jazz Alliance—to hold the newly created position of Associate Director of Duke Performances. In the thick of DEMAN Weekend, Recess Editor Michaela Dwyer talked to Oberstein about his Cuban background, riding the elevator with well-postured Alvin Ailey dancers and what it really means to be an arts administrator.

Recess: I’m always really interested in how people define themselves. You call yourself, among other things, an arts administrator, producer, musician, educator, consultant. First of all, what is an arts administrator?

Eric Oberstein: I like to think of arts administrators or arts managers as those who are providing the structure for the arts—whether it’s the creation or presentation of art or arts, visual and performing. I think in every great arts administrator there’s an artist. We all got into it somehow because we either play an instrument, or dance, act, write, or [practice] visual arts. For me that was always music. There’s a moment of self-realization that is simultaneously scary and really fulfilling when you can realize your limitations. For me, I realized I wasn’t going to be a virtuosic jazz musician, but I was okay with it because I realized I could still be an integral part of that art form but operate in a different capacity. When I got to Duke I didn’t necessarily know [arts administration] was a career option. As an arts administrator, I wear many different hats, which is part of the reason why I love the work so much: it’s not so narrow. [We’re] cultivating audiences and consumers and we’re very much in the business of education, creating context [for performances]. I don’t look at myself as a gatekeeper or a tastemaker, but I do know what I enjoy and what affects me deeply. You’re thinking about the community in which you live and what art will most inspire your community­—what art will hit the mandate here at Duke. If we’re not passing the arts on—sharing, contextualizing, inviting people to embrace them—the arts are really self-absorbed. I don’t like the high/low art distinction. There’s just art. It’s either good or bad, and that’s subjective.

R: It seems like arts administration is a relatively new phenomenon in the academy. How, as an undergraduate, do you construct an academic experience to prepare yourself for that type of career? When you were here there was a certificate program in arts management, which no longer exists.

EO: In academia there weren’t proper arts administration programs until the 1970s or so. I kind of fell into it. I’m half-Cuban and grew up around Cuban music, and I credit [my interest in the arts] to a really supportive school system with active arts programs, which is so important. Today it’s incredibly sad because this is an exception rather than the rule, and in New York City, even, where the arts are revered, if you stumble upon an arts program in a high school you are profoundly lucky. I’ve always been interested in why that happened, how that happened, and how we can better advocate for changing that. Then I got to Duke and took Public Policy 55 first semester, and it just wasn’t for me. Then I signed up for a [Cultural Anthropology] seminar on Cuba. That class changed my life—changed, really, my Duke career. I really was not thinking about the lucrative potential of [Cultural Anthropology as a major], but I loved the classes. And then my junior year Duke introduced the certificate in arts management, and I was lucky enough to do that. [Arts administration] wasn’t clearly laid out for me as a career…

R:…In the way that other career options are.

EO: Right. But because I’m very much self-driven and in touch with what I wanted to be doing, I just took classes that I liked and shaped it into a path that made sense for me. That’s why I was so thrilled when the certificate program launched because I thought, “Finally! An acknowledged program of something I want to do!” I actually love talking with Duke students to say, yes, you can do this and pay bills and live a productive life. No matter what you’re doing at Duke, [you have to] create your own path, check in with yourself.

R: And the notion that this doesn’t have to be a really pressured activity.

EO: It can be something you do on a bus, at the end of the day in your room. Sometimes we get so caught up…I struggled with myself for half of my Duke career, and then it was, like, “Wow, there’s a whole area out there, this exists,” and that’s exciting [to realize]. In terms of building a path for arts management at Duke, students have to continue to be involved in building an active arts culture, whether it’s leading arts organizations, performing, creating, writing—just being part of the conversation.

R: And we’re at that point where there’s all this energy in the arts at Duke. How do you enter into that, in your new position?

EO: I’m incredibly excited for the current state of the arts at Duke, and that’s part of the reason why I’m back—because I see this forward motion, this energy, this prioritization of arts as an integral part of the university experience. That’s not to say it wasn’t here when I was here. Right before I left, Duke released a strategic plan, and seeing the arts as one of the areas of focus was incredibly exciting to me. Arts should be prioritized the same as other academic subjects.

Duke students work so hard to get here and do a million extracurricular activities. Like, 80 percent of students coming in have done arts extracurriculars and want to stay engaged in [art] and may even be on the fence about it as a career path. When you come to a place, whether it be a university or a job, there’s a culture, vibe and certain values being reinforced. I think Duke is very much in a state of transition, especially with the Duke Forward campaign. When you arrive at a place and hear people talking about [a culture], you don’t even question it. If you came to campus as a freshman and saw DEMAN, support for the Nasher and for Duke Performances, you’d think Duke and Durham have a whole broad arts scene going on, and you'd want to be a part of that. The more that students genuinely engage in that conversation, [the more] it will continue to grow.

R: Your two master’s degrees—one in arts administration and the other in arts in education—blended fairly seamlessly into your directorial work at an arts non-profit. Talk a little bit about how these paths took shape.

EO: [At Columbia, where I studied arts management], I worked at the Research Center for Arts and Culture and conducted studies with living artists in response to their needs—with jazz musicians, [figuring out] what they need, something as simple as health insurance. For one summer I worked at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I wanted to see a very high-functioning, high-quality arts organization. I think my posture was better than ever that summer. I’d walk into the elevator with Ailey dancers, and I’d be slouching and tired in the morning. Seeing [them] and their artistry was very inspiring.

When I first got to Columbia, I attended a concert at Symphony Space and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra [led by Arturo O’Farrill] had just started a residency there. I filled out an audience response card, flipped it over and wrote [to the Orchestra], “I’m studying arts management, I’ve admired you guys for long time, and would love to help you out.” I got an email from Arturo’s wife ten months later. She invited me by to their house to chat, and all of a sudden I was Arturo’s assistant director, producing their shows, writing grant applications, [going] to Cuba for the first time, being invited to produce their big-band album. That was an amazing experience, producing an album [nominated for a Grammy award] from start to finish. When I was at Harvard [studying arts in education], halfway through, I emailed Arturo and said, “You need to hire me. You don’t have any staff, you and the board know you need staff,” and he said [I was] right. He went back to the board, they raised money, got a few grants, and that summer I started as their executive director. It was a staff of one and an army of interns.

R: What did that feel like, to be in charge so suddenly at such a young age?

EO: I was unbelievably frightened. I didn’t know any better. I just kind of threw myself into it, thinking, of course, at 24, I can be the executive director of a Grammy-winning orchestra and non-profit.

R: But no one was really telling you no.

EO: Exactly. Trial by fire. I was thrown into the fire. We brought our orchestra to Cuba [again], headlined the Havana Jazz Festival, performed in the town where my mom lived as a child because Arturo’s dad, who was also a legendary composer and arranger, was from that same town—our paths were definitely meant to cross. [With O’Farrill], it was just an amazing relationship. I always look at arts administrators’ relationship to artists as so sacred. We became best friends. We know how we think and how to support each other. It was a privilege to be invited by a world-class composer and pianist and bandleader into his and his family’s world, and to be able to build this reality, to give structure to his dreams and his goals.

R: You were so entrenched in this New York and Latin Jazz scene—how did that switch for you?

EO: I love New York. I also love Durham. I’ve always been looking for that balance of the urban and the natural. I love Duke and have since I was in fifth grade. My first point of entry was Duke basketball, and then I discovered there was more to this incredible university—more that I wanted to be a part of. Aaron [Greenwald] called me and said [Duke Performances was interested in] creating a position just for me that would involve fundraising, a strategic plan for Duke Performances, managing residencies and artist engagements—all the things [I’ve] been working on and studying and engaging in for the past several years, to use that and bring that to Duke. I wasn’t anticipating this change. But you can feel the energy here at Duke and Durham. [When I was a student] Brightleaf used to be the cutoff, and to know that you can go to Casbah, Motorco, all these restaurants—there’s a vitality that’s really exciting to me. I’m not trying to relive my Duke past but I’m approaching it from this totally different perspective.