Art Works Blog

Inside the NEA: Getting to Know Michael Orlove

"‘Art Works’ and is, in my opinion, the most effective democratic egalitarian system we have in the world." ---Michael Orlove

As Michael Orlove celebrates surviving his first week as the NEA's new director of presenting and artist communities, we thought it'd be a good time to get to know the native Chicagoan a little better. Orlove leaves the city having founded Chicago SummerDance and World Music Festival: Chicago as well as having overseen the music programming for Millennium Park, a signature Chicago attraction. Twice named Chicagoan of the Year in Music by the Chicago Tribune, Orlove was also selected as a Chicago Matters Global Visionary by Chicago Public Radio and named one of "Seven Samurai" at the 2009 World Music Expo in Copenhagen, Denmark. Over e-mail this week, we chatted with Orlove about how his parents instilled in him a love of the arts, what "Art Works" means to him, and the childhood secret his mom once confided in Yo-Yo Ma.

NEA: In five words or less, who is Michael Orlove?

MICHAEL ORLOVE: Honest, curious, hard-working, compassionate, family

NEA: What do you remember as your first/earliest engagement in the arts?

ORLOVE: Growing up in Chicago, my parents did their best to expose my brothers and me to the arts. Music festivals, museums, theater---we did so much as a family. I fondly remember going downtown half a dozen times each summer to hear the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra (FOR FREE) at the old Petrillo Band Shell. We would picnic---sometimes with other friends or relatives---and by the time the music started my brothers and I were off horsing around on the grass. What I remember most is watching the crowd of people, from all parts of the city, huddled on blankets and sitting in the seats enjoying the varied classical repertoire with the Chicago skyline in the background. It left a real impression on me---something I took with me to my professional life. Music is an incredible vehicle to bring people together.

NEA: What are you most looking forward to about living in the Washington, DC metro area?

ORLOVE: Exploring DC and the metro area together as a family. I was born, raised, and lived my entire life in Chicago. And my wife Rebeca is from Granada, Spain, and came to Chicago 10 years ago. Our kids Alvaro and Lola are five and three so we all get to experience a new environment together as a family. I think that is very special. New house, new school, new neighborhoods, new museums, new friends---we all get to explore together. Family!

Also having lived in the Midwest my entire life I am now starting to get overwhelmed with how much is accessible from DC: New York City, Philly, Delaware coast, the Carolinas. My head is spinning.

NEA: What will you miss most about Chicago?

ORLOVE: Family and friends. After being in the same city since birth you forget how lucky you are to have so many people in your life. Can’t ever take that for granted. I hope they will all come to visit. Just not at the same time, of course.

And I am going to miss simple navigation. Too many angle streets and turnarounds in DC. I know DC is significantly smaller than Chicago, but I seem to get lost daily with all these angle streets.

NEA: What do you hope to learn while you're at the NEA?

ORLOVE: I am humbled by all the incredible talent in this agency and hope to learn from all my colleagues here at the NEA. I am anxious to better understand how the other disciplines work and how I can contribute to other fields. Just reading through the NEA blog every morning is somewhat overwhelming---so much exciting work going on within this agency.

NEA: What do you hope to accomplish while you're at the NEA?

ORLOVE: I am following in the footsteps of a respected colleague and friend, Mario Garcia Durham, who made some incredible strides in his post over the past eight years. I hope to continue his vision and passion within the presenting and artist communities fields and do the best I can to be a leader at the national level. This includes helping to bring new voices, visions, and ideas to both the presenting and artist community fields. Innovation is something that we all need to embrace, and I hope we can find interesting ways to incorporate new ideas, methods, and best practices in order to see these respective fields continue to flourish and have maximum impact throughout the country. And I am counting on my colleagues within the agency and so many remarkable contemporaries throughout the United States to work on this together. Very excited!

NEA: What are you most proud of accomplishing while you were at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs?

ORLOVE: Having spent close to two decades at the Department of Cultural Affairs I have so many great memories, experiences, and events to look back at with pride. It would be difficult to select one particular concert or event, impossible in fact. I look back, however, and can't help but take great satisfaction in the work we collectively did to make art accessible to all. The vast amount of performing and visual art programs at the Chicago Cultural Center, Millennium Park, Chicago SummerDance, and World Music Festival all succeeded in reaching the people, the community, the lifeline of the city. I know people who met their spouses at SummerDance, friendships that began by sitting beside one another in the Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center, entire social networks that formed on the lawn of Millennium Park. This is what makes me most happy. ‘Art Works’ and is, in my opinion, the most effective democratic egalitarian system we have in the world.

NEA: Which contemporary artist do you secretly hope you run into in the elevator or the halls while you're here? (And why?)

ORLOVE: I know this will sound trite, but I really want to run into someone in the elevator or hallway unknown to me and make a discovery. Don't get me wrong---there are so many incredibly interesting artists out there who I would love to meet. But, technology allows us to get such a close introspective look into people's lives you feel like you already know them. And through my former position with the City of Chicago, I had the great fortune of meeting so many unbelievable artists. But wouldn't it be great to meet someone completely unknown to you who just knocks you out? It has happened to me so many times in my career. Seeing Doc Watson solo at the Old Town School, seeing Junior Wells for the first time at the Checkerboard Lounge in 1989, hearing Tinariwen in the Sahara Desert in Mali, listening to the great Maqam singer Alim Qasimov on a friend's Walkman. I could go on and on. There is so much creativity out there. I guess the lesson here is eyes/ears wide open.

NEA: What would most people be surprised to learn about you?

ORLOVE: That I am from Chicago?

Seriously, I think people are always surprised to hear that I have no formal training in music. In all the commission projects I was involved in the musicians would always show me the score. It was like reading hieroglyphics. I was always into sports as a kid. Never lasted more than a week on any instrument.

Funny story: several years back when the Department of Cultural Affairs was celebrating the Year of the Silk Road in Chicago there were a number of meetings with Yo-Yo Ma and his staff. We were walking out of the office and I mentioned that my mother volunteers every Wednesday at the Chicago Cultural Center. Because Yo-Yo is such a mensch, he immediately approaches her without me being in clear view and says, “Sarah Orlove what a pleasure to meet you.” She was shell-shocked and---as only a good Jewish mother would do---she quips back and says, “What an honor to meet you. You know, Mr. Ma, I tried so hard to get Michael interested in taking music class and he just never took any interest.” So I guess it's not a big secret. Even Yo-Yo Ma knows!

NEA: What does "Art Works" mean to you?

ORLOVE: Art Works to engage and bring people together. Art Works to inspire people young and old, rich and poor. Art Works to encourage curiosity, develop community, and give us a better understanding of the world and of each other.

NEA: Any last words?

ORLOVE: Just saw this quote by Twyla Tharp today---an appropriate way to end the interview, I think. “Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.”

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