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In conversation with John Brown, Duke's new vice provost for the arts

<p>Jazz program director John Brown began his appointment as Duke's vice provost for the arts July 1.&nbsp;</p>

Jazz program director John Brown began his appointment as Duke's vice provost for the arts July 1. 

After 13 years of serving as Duke’s first-ever vice provost for the arts, Dr. Scott Lindroth stepped down from the role over the summer. In June, Duke announced that John Brown, Duke’s Jazz Program director and longtime professor would be Lindroth’s successor.

A native North Carolinian, Brown first came to Duke in 2001 as an adjunct faculty member in the music department, but prior to that, Brown spent many weekends in high school on Duke’s campus for his sister’s music rehearsals. Brown has been tied to the arts at Duke for the majority of his life, and now he will lead them.

The Chronicle corresponded with Brown over email to discuss the evolution of Duke’s arts culture, taking on this role during a pandemic as well as accessibility and equity in the arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.   

The Chronicle: How are you feeling about taking on the vice provost role? What are you most excited about? 

John Brown: I am overjoyed about the opportunity to serve as vice provost for the arts! I experience many emotions during the course of the day, but they are all related. Excitement, joy, enthusiasm and, oddly enough, despite the chaos we face in our world, optimism. I am grateful to be in a position that enables and inspires human expression and also makes it available for people to experience, study and enjoy. 

TC: How does it feel to be transitioning into this role amid COVID-19 and widespread civil unrest? What role do you foresee the arts having at Duke in the fall as the community starts to come back together? 

JB: COVID-19 has changed Duke and changed the world. When I think of what life looked like this time last year, I experience a challenging juxtaposition of delight and melancholy. The civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd — one life among many Black and brown lives taken by the violent expression of systemic racism — has highlighted a plague that has hindered our progress as a nation and as a people.

It has been said that where there is no suffering, there is no art. Our country is now suffering from two diseases: coronavirus and racism. In them, art is undeniably present. Writing in 2015, Toni Morrison said: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.” While art and artists are always here, it is during trying times that we connect and interact with art in deeper, more substantive and more meaningful ways. 

TC: What about Duke made you want to work here? What has made you want to stay?  

JB: I am a native North Carolinian, and I always admired what I heard and saw about Duke growing up. I spent a lot of time at Duke when I was in high school because my sister was part of the Duke University String School, and we visited every Saturday to spend the day in Biddle Music Building while my sister rehearsed. (I still marvel at the fact that a door I walked past every Saturday would one day be the door to my office! I also performed at Duke on many occasions over the years before I started teaching here. 

Since beginning an official relationship with Duke nearly 20 years ago, I have had the pleasure of teaching here, living on campus among students as a Faculty in Residence, being a pre-major advisor and going all-in with all things Duke. We are indeed a family, and there is a communal spirit among us. 

TC: Having been part of the arts community at Duke for nearly twenty years, what progress do you feel has been made? What would you still like to see more of? 

JB: Since I came to campus in 2001, Duke Performances was born, the Nasher Museum of Art was founded, the vice provost for the arts position was created, Baldwin and Page Auditorium were renovated, the Rubenstein Arts Center was built and two MFAs were established. These tremendous steps forward are symbols of Duke’s commitment to the arts and a testament to the work of my predecessor, Scott Lindroth.

Moving forward, I would like to see us engage more with our broader community. Duke folks are not only the best and the brightest, but also among the most giving and caring people one can find. I have set a goal of creating new partnerships and collaborations with Durham Public Schools, our neighboring universities and community artists and cultural organizations. I want to create an environment where the arts at Duke are a visible and integral part of Durham, of North Carolina, our country and the world.  

TC: For prospective and current students who hope to pursue lives in the arts, do you feel that Duke is a good jumping-off point for them? If so, why? 

JB: Every Duke student receives exceptional interdisciplinary training that empowers them to approach any challenge or opportunity with a variety of tools. Our world is made up of complex, overlapping systems. For artists to powerfully address global and national issues and make their work relevant to wide audiences, they must draw on experiences and knowledge born outside the studio or rehearsal hall. I believe that a Duke undergraduate education grants emerging artists an exceptional foundation, with opportunities to specialize and deepen technical training through mentorships with exceptional faculty members.  

TC: How would you describe the value of having experiences in the arts to any students who might see them as frivolities? 

JB: Art and artists are essential — not only during this pandemic, as Duke Arts has demonstrated with its spring and summer campaign — but always! Whether one chooses a career in the field or not, art is an essential part of life that grounds us as individuals and binds us as human beings. The arts teach us about ourselves and connect us to the deepest parts of our humanity. No matter who you are, or where you work, engaging deeply with the arts will give you key skills applicable to any field: close looking and listening, empathy, appreciating context, taking risks, nurturing creative thought and more. 

TC: How would you describe Duke’s current relationship with Durham’s local arts and how do you hope to develop that relationship during your time as vice provost? 

JB: There is room to deepen our ties with Durham Public Schools, NCCU and Durham Tech, for starters. I want to develop programming that specifically supports the artists in our community and region. I have long envisioned a deeper kind of artist residency, created in true partnership with community stakeholders and reaching a broad and diverse audience. In other words, we can do more, much more.  

TC: I’m curious about what you believe it means for arts at Duke to be diverse and accessible, and what, if any, responsibilities do we have in making sure that our arts spaces actually are diverse and accessible? 

I seek to make the most of my position in ensuring that arts opportunities at Duke are equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible. I have personally been denied opportunities simply because I am Black. I can recall one particular instance where the all-Black group I was in was told that [we were] great, but we didn’t “fit the vision” of the event. As with every corner of society, arts institutions must review internal practices and external offerings through an equity lens. I am grateful to be surrounded by so many administrators, faculty and students that take these issues so seriously. In many ways, the arts are leading Duke in living up to its values of respect, trust, inclusion, discovery and excellence. 

I intend to guarantee that no one engaging in the arts at Duke ever faces the kind of discrimination I faced in that instance, and to increase the ways we serve our community beyond campus. We are complete only when we are as inclusive as we can possibly be, and that includes giving voice to all artists and intentionally sharing art to move society in a positive and forward-thinking direction. 

TC: Anything else you feel that we should know? 

JB: I am beginning this position by listening. If you have a question, a concern or a dream — reach out to me. We may not get to bump into one another on campus like we used to, but my door is open.

You can reach John Brown at jbrown@duke.edu.

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