Art Works Blog

Inside the NEA: Meet NCA Member Emil Kang

As most artists know, becoming a professional isn't necessarily about talent. It's about having the discipline to spend hours in the studio, the persistence to continually audition or submit despite inevitable rejection, and having a passion that outweighs financial desires. This is true even within arts administration. New National Council on the Arts member Emil Kang is today the first executive director for the arts at the University of North Carolina, where he has introduced students to innovative cultural events such as a 100th anniversary celebration of The Rite of Spring. Prior to arriving at UNC, Kang was the president and executive director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and also served as orchestra manager for the Seattle Symphony and as an orchestra management fellow for the American Symphony Orchestra League. But as Kang told us, this remarkably distinguished career didn't come easily. In a recent interview, Kang told us about his winding professional journey, why he firmly believes that we "make our own luck," and how he thinks the arts can make us better human beings.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience with the arts?

EMIL KANG: I started playing the piano at age five. So for me, it was that and also hearing recordings. Hearing Mendelsohn concertos and Tchaikovsky concertos---those are ingrained as my most vivid aural, musical memories.

NEA: I read that as a child, your three career options as dictated by your parents were doctor, lawyer, or priest. And I think many parents are hesitant to see their child go into the arts. Since you now work with young people, I was wondering what advice you might have for kids attempting to build a career in the arts, and conversely what advice you might have for their families?

KANG: What I tell young people is the idea that you make your own luck. Even though it might not seem like a particular choice you made makes sense at the time you make it, over the course of your lifetime, as you look back, you'll start to see how these dots connect. Especially in the arts, and particularly in the administrative capacities, there isn't a narrowly defined path as there would be for a doctor or lawyer or priest. I think that's where families get nervous: they like to know in advance what the outcome is. In my parents' case, it wasn't about being [a doctor, lawyer, or priest], it was just that they could grasp the path that I would take [with those careers]. When they don't know what's coming down the pike, they get very nervous, and understandably so. It's much more about trusting your child.

It's a privilege to be able to have a career in something you actually enjoy doing. Obviously we all strive for that. This is also something that if you don't actually enjoy it, you will not succeed in this field. It isn't something that you can go from step A to step B to Step C. It really does depend on your own creativity and imagination and persistence.

When I go to speak at commencements, I talk about following your dreams and having the courage of your convictions. I made some very difficult choices in my life. It's hard to ever know what the trigger was, but I always knew that it was the right direction without really being conscious of that at the time.

NEA: What were some of the most difficult choices that you had to make?

KANG: I was offered, after graduating college, to work at a bank. That's what my friends were doing. Secretly I started applying for jobs at art galleries. I didn't tell anybody. I was---I don't know why---sort of embarrassed by the whole thing. I was minoring in art history, and my main surrealism and post-surrealism professor---who is the one professor I'm still in touch with 23 years later---was the most important influence for me in college. She really encouraged me to pursue my interest in art. Up until that point, I was an economics major and I played the violin.

So I had an offer to be an entry-level analyst after graduation, and also an offer to be a receptionist at an art gallery. As you can imagine, one probably paid 50 percent of the other in terms of salary, and you can imagine which one I took. My parents were just horrified that I would do this to them, in their words. They'd say, "How could you do this to us?"

From there, it was another series of these decisions. After I became a manager of this art gallery, I missed music and was trying to figure out how to find a job in music. There was no Internet then, and barely any e-mail. I wrote letters on my original Mac Plus with my dot matrix printer. I wrote 300 letters to every orchestra manager in the country, saying, "Hi, my name is Emil Kang. I work at an art gallery, I was an economics major, I played the violin all my life, and I would love to meet you and learn more about the orchestra business." I still have the [responses]. I have an incredible one from Deborah Borda when she was running the New York Philharmonic. It was one of the most inspiring letters I've ever received.

This all led to this two-year search for a job in the orchestra field. I had a nice high-paying job in an art gallery, my own apartment on the Upper East Side, and I gave it up and moved back home with my parents and lived in my old high school bedroom and was a receptionist all over again at age 25. So you make these decisions, and you never know what's going to happen. You think they're going to be right and you hope they're going to be right, and obviously in my case, I don't regret a thing.

NEA: As you said, you ended up working with orchestras for many, many years. What prompted your move to higher education?

KANG: I realized after 15 years or so, my love for the music had started to wane. The whole reason why I got into the field was because of my love of music. It became an effort for me to sit through concerts. I realized it was time for me to think of a change. It turned out that the one person I knew in North Carolina was on the search committee for this job, and he asked me if I would be interested. I'd been going through a lot of soul-searching at the time, and looking at my other interests. So like everything else, you make your own luck---but you have to take advantage of it at the same time. This was a chance for me to reinvent myself.

NEA: Do you see any overlap between managing an orchestra and managing the arts program at UNC?

KANG: This role has really unleashed my own creative potential in ways that I never felt possible running an orchestra. That institution is so steeped in history and tradition and mentality and ways of doing business, and here I was given a chance to build something from scratch. I was able to be creative both organizationally as well as artistically, and was able to spend time learning and discovering my own interests in fields other than classical music. This idea of learning about dance and theater and experimental art and performance art has been this great journey. And of course, building partnerships with artists. I prided myself in the orchestra world on commissioning a lot of new work back then, and here we've just gone crazy with that. It's a continuation in my mind of what we started in the orchestra world.

NEA: You used to teach a class on artistic entrepreneurship, which I understand is a minor at UNC. Can you give your definition of artistic entrepreneurship and tell why it’s important?

KANG: There are four tracks [for the entrepreneurship minor]: commercial, scientific, social, and artistic. From our perspective, it was always hardest to define what was artistic. When you talked in particular to our music faculty, those who are conservatory-trained and had careers as performers always viewed entrepreneurship in some respects as a four-letter word. It was this idea that you were selling out, and what about art for art's sake. There was a very narrow definition of the word, and that is something that I don't believe in. That's not to suggest that I don't agree that one wants to protect and preserve the tradition. But for me, it's really about demonstrating the value of the craft to the wider society, and demonstrating the potential---economic and not economic---value that the arts can provide.

Through that, we allowed our students to launch ventures that were both commercial and social. There was never a sense that we would define it in any one way. Students did everything from launch record labels to create digital media, to support the broadcasting of orchestras, to maybe creating a public television series, to doing a whole website on student artists selling their art to other students on campus. Taking advantage of our students' own creativity is really what I was interested in.

NEA: How do you think your work affects UNC students who are not necessarily interested in the arts? 

KANG: What I do every day is demonstrate this idea that the arts are for everyone. I spend a lot of time talking about this idea of the arts beyond practice, beyond consumption…. Whether it's about practicing art as a tuba player in the eighth grade or consuming art as an adult, it's a very black and white idea. When I talk about art, it's much more about how art is all around us, every day. It [is] a vehicle for expression, a way to interpret everyday life, a way to animate social issues of the day.

I have a wonderful e-mail I just got from a graduate who's in private equity. He believed wholeheartedly that taxpayers should not be paying for classes that, in his mind, don't help students get jobs…. Why is art only about creating jobs? Why isn't it about creating better human beings? Why isn't it about improving our democracy? Why isn't it about supporting development of empathy? I think what some people find surprising, especially our music faculty here, is that when I talk about the arts, it's not necessarily geared toward the future practitioners. It's much more geared toward the 98 percent of the people who are going to be supporting these other artists. And not just how to increase audience or sell more tickets or raise more dollars, but [how to] actually raise the consciousness of what makes us human.

NEA: You mentioned that coming to UNC has unleashed creative possibilities for you. Where do you look for inspiration?

KANG: From other people. I'm a big believer that creativity doesn't happen in isolation, that it happens when two or more groups or people or parties have open and trusting conversations. The seeds of many ideas that we come up with here happen over dinner, over a meal, where we're talking with a pianist or a director or a choreographer and we're imagining the future. I'm also a big believer in this idea of dream as big as you possibly can. That's where you should start, always. Imagine what the greatest possibility is, then try and come up with a plan to achieve it. I always throw out these crazy thoughts to artists and from those crazy ideas, even if it's one out of a hundred [that succeeds], I think that's a great success rate.

NEA: My last question for you: what are you most looking forward to as a NCA member?

KANG: What I'm most looking forward to is having this free exchange of ideas, of talking about how best we can advocate for art and for art-makers. I think that's the most important job that I have, is as advocate. We have a chance now to do that on a national stage. It's a great honor and responsibility.

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