The unique premise upon which the school was founded came under the initiative of former Governor Terry Sanford, guided by visionary writer John Ehle. Their creative alliance forged an institution unorthodox for its time. Established by the N.C. General Assembly in 1963, the North Carolina School of the Arts opened in Winston-Salem in 1965 as America’s first public arts conservatory.
The school’s location was determined when the citizens of Winston-Salem, known as the “City of Arts and Innovation” and home of the first municipal arts council in the nation, raised nearly a million dollars in a two-day telephone campaign to win the school for the city. Composer Vittorio Giannini of The Juilliard School was NCSA’s first President; subsequent Chancellors have included Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Robert Ward, former Joffrey Ballet General Director Alex C. Ewing, world-renowned conductor John Mauceri and former Editor in Chief of Southern Living, Lindsay Bierman. Brian Cole has been serving as Interim Chancellor since August 2019. The school became part of the University of North Carolina system in 1972.
With a primary focus on performance, the UNC School of the Arts provides an environment similar to that of an artist’s colony, where students are encouraged to grow, to experiment, and to develop their abilities to the fullest. Students study with resident master teachers who have had successful careers in the arts—from American Ballet Theatre to the New York City Opera—and who remain active in their professions. Noted guest artists frequently bring lessons directly from the contemporary arts world.
Approximately 1,250 students are enrolled in the five conservatories that make up the School of the Arts: Dance, Design and Production, Drama, Filmmaking and Music. Ranging from high school to undergraduate, graduate and post-master’s, the students are selected by audition or portfolio review and interview. Along with rigorous arts training, students receive intensive academic instruction through the Division of Liberal Arts and the High School Academic Program. With its full academic program, the school awards the high school diploma, bachelor’s and master’s degrees and the Professional Artist Certificate.