Arts Day Speech

You might be wondering how an editor who was an architect became a Chancellor.

If you knew me as a young man, playing the piano and saxophone, performing in high school musicals, teaching myself to draw and paint, and being raised by passionate advocates for the arts, you’d wonder how I ever ended up at Southern Living. I got my masters degree in architecture and worked in that field before I became an editor. 

My job at Southern Living required creative leadership and vision for a complex, diversified, multi-media brand; oversight of an eight-figure budget; strategic brand development; and what I would now describe as fundraising with potential sponsors and supporters, a.k.a. media buyers. Sound familiar? That pretty much sums up my job at the School of the Arts. After 20 years in publishing, I felt a need to grow and a calling to serve.   

So I left the turbulence of publishing for even greater turmoil in higher education, but I love it and I’m up for the challenge.

The arts have always been a part of the North Carolina brand — that’s what appealed me. This state pioneered arts education at Black Mountain College, which attracted some of the most influential artistic leaders of the last century, like Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Josef Albers. 

North Carolina also pioneered many artistic firsts, including

  • The nation’s first state symphony

  • The nation’s first state art museum

  • The nation’s first arts council, in Winston-Salem

  • And, the nation’s first public arts conservatory

It’s a rich, storied history. But the future of the arts, and arts education, will depend on our ability to adapt to disruptive technologies and ongoing innovations that will turn our world upside down—again and again.  

I know that our campus, like so many arts organizations and non-profits, needs help with change management, otherwise known as strategic agility. Charles Darwin put it best: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, it is the one most adaptable to change.”

I learned this lesson through leading a hugely successful 20th century stalwart, Southern Living magazine, into a 21st century multi-media brand. I humbly present seven laws of adaptive leadership, or what I like to call “7 Ways” ways to spark an evolution.

“Learn Good BS”

You have to learn how to speak in terms that business and money people understand: what I call business-speak, or ‘BS’ for short. Many of the money people we need to reach or influence don’t care at all about why we create art. They aren’t heartless--they just define success in numbers and return on investment. The “arts are good for culture and society” argument makes it sound like the arts are a nice to have, not a must have.   

The same could be said about higher education in the state: when I heard that UNC General Administration commissioned a study to prove the economic value of the university system, I wondered why we needed a study to tell us that. But what seems perfectly obvious to you and me can mean nothing to people who have no connection to our work, especially taxpayers who can’t afford college tuition. In business speak, a number like 63 billion–the impact of the UNC system across the state means much more than a platitude such as “improving the human condition and searching for truth.” This is the truth to some people, and we have to promote it. Most of us excel at winning hearts, but we get pissy and resentful about working double-time to win minds. But man, am I ever grateful now for that economic impact study. 

Fortunately, the economic benefit of the arts has been well documented. So let’s B.S. for a moment about why we matter. 

  • The School the Arts had a $100 million economic impact in 2013, the equivalent of over 1,800 jobs. In business speak, that’s a robust ROI—another great BS term—for a tiny school that gets just one percent of the total funding for the entire UNC system.
  • Arts and Culture contributed $40 Billion to the economy of North Carolina, in 2011, and it’s probably safe to assume it has gone up since then.

I also want to share some national figures, because here’s where the BS gets even more compelling. There’s a reason they call it show BUSINESS. 

  • The 2012-2013 Broadway Season generated close to $12 billion for the New York City economy.  Tourists spent $6.5 billion of that on hotels, restaurants, parking garages, and other businesses.  Touring shows have generated $3.8 billion--that means live theatre contributes more than $15 billion to the US economy every year.
  • Many of you have seen Wicked, directed by UNC alumnus Joe Mantello. In the show’s first ten years on Broadway, it returned more than 1000% on its investment. That doesn’t include profits from licensing fees, touring, and international productions that investors typically receive.  That's a better ROI than Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, which returned about 140% in the same period.
  • In 2012, arts and cultural production contributed more than $698 billion to the U.S. economy. To put that in context, that’s more than construction at $587 billion, or transportation and warehousing at $464 billion. 

It’s natural for us to advocate for intangible and intrinsic benefits of the arts, but sometimes, to make the case we want to win, we need get down to brass tacks: the arts are valuable to our culture AND our economy.    

“Aim for the Heart”

No amount of B. S. will matter to your most loyal patrons. But as all of you already know, we can’t take anyone’s loyalty for granted—especially now. What I’ve learned about magazine readers certainly applies to arts audiences: we are waging a global war for their attention. In the 1980s and 90s, the arrival of Southern Living in the mailbox was a very special “Calgon Take Me Away” moment for millions of Southern women. Today, nearly all of those women are wearing what we called “mobile blinders.” That’s one of many reasons newsstand sales fell off a cliff and may never recover.

While mom scrolls through Facebook posts at checkout, at home there will be tweets, pinterest galleries, instagram photos, tumblrs, a gazillion blogs, youtube videos, emails, texts, and more facebook posts. These constant distractions have reduced our attention span and rewired our brains enough to make a two-hour performance that doesn’t dazzle us with nonstop special effects seem unbearable. Not only that, who has that kind of time anymore?

I’m not the first person to say that smart phones have made us really dumb. Today, there’s only one way to earn consumers loyalty and sustained attention: you must win their hearts, and their undying affection, by playing straight to their emotions. 

Here’s one way to start: turn your mission statement into an impact statement. Once you have that, it should guide your entire marketing and branding strategy, and influence much of your programming.

At Southern Living, I inherited a vague mission statement about “helping women find their personal Southern style,” showing the best travel, and the best tested recipes, blah blah blah. Who cares? My goal was to make sure each issue had the same IMPACT on our consumers, and that impact needed to be the same every month: celebrate her pride of place, reinforce her family’s Southern traditions, express her true Southern style, recall the best holiday memories, and make her feel like the best Southern cook and hostess in town. I wrote about these themes in every editor’s letter, and spoke directly from the heart.

At the School of the Arts, our mission basically boils down to something very generic like this: “we train world-class artists.” Again, so what? Right now, photos of perfect performances dominate our marketing and branding of the school. That’s great if you can afford the ticket price, or if you’re a ballet or theater fan. But even diehard money people can get verklempt when we share stories about UNCSA students answering their true calling, and realizing their dreams. We’re in the process of formulating an IMPACT statement that focuses on the student. What we’ve come up with so far relates to training world-class artists, but strikes a deeper chord: “Transforming artistic students into creative professionals.” Something like that. People love students, and want to support students. The label of “artist,” unfortunately, can sound more elitist to some. The intensive and immersive training of artistic students can be better expressed in the context of our shops, stages, and studios than in shots from performances that look more like the work of professional artists than the work of students.

I realize this doesn’t help those of you involved in promoting the work of professional artists. Your secret weapon will be stories and images and video testimonials about lives being changed, people coming together, communities honoring their history, families making memories, and performers inspiring others.

Today more than ever, people respond to hard-core nostalgia. It reminds us of simpler times when we weren’t so busy and distracted. The best place to find it is online, in the one place we can always go to see pictures of cute babies, pets doing silly things, and vintage photos of grandma: Facebook.

Here’s a case in point from Southern Living. On the brand’s Facebook page, recipes, travel or decorating photos will normally get 1000 or 2000 likes. Jam recipes or a fantastic holiday dessert, maybe four or five thousand. But when we posted a quote from the movie Steel Magnolias with a photo of the cast, we got 10,000 likes. I remember one of the comments was something like: “This just melts my heart, y’all!” My point, exactly. To win the war of attention, you have to aim straight for the heart. 

“Meet the (Digital) Natives”

This photo should give you a clue to the future of performance—can you guess what they’re watching? A Broadway show? A live sporting event? A rock concert? Sorry, none of the above. To this crowd, your potential future supporters, it’s something way more entertaining: they are watching a handful of teenagers play video games on stage that are being projected onto a giant screen.

That’s why one of my first priorities as Chancellor will be to fast-track the joint degree program we have been developing with NC State in gaming and entertainment technology.

Digital natives live in a different world than we do. It is a VIRTUAL world, where screens of every shape and size are windows to that world. I’m no doctor or scientist, but it sure looks like today’s ADHD epidemic could be related to the world’s younger generation getting hooked on the “speed” and sensational effects of their virtual reality. The rush of so much stimuli keeps our kids on a constant high, like an I.V. of sugar all day, every day. The linear thinking my generation acquired by reading books or watching 30-minute sitcoms has been replaced by a totally random exploration of eye candy and clickbait that keeps all of us craving the next quick fix. 

Back in the arts world, traditional repertoire can appeal to digital natives when it’s combined with multi-media effects and presented in a non-traditional, immersive environment, like Soundbox in San Francisco.

Sometimes all you need are interactive tools to deepen audience engagement. At Southern Living, I tried to try to tap into this: football fan mania on Southern college campuses like Clemson University. We started a contest to find the South’s Best Tailgate, and got more than half a million votes from rabid students and fans who might not otherwise have engaged with the Southern living brand.

I’d like to share a few examples of success stories that are closer to home:

  • The Carolina Ballet in Raleigh was one of the first to reach out to new audiences with “Tweet Seats.” Source: Quintessential Feline

  • The Charlotte Symphony has live-tweet sections at concerts, has a blog, and is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. (From a person who worked there).

  • NC Arts “Show Your Colors for The Arts” selfie campaign on Facebook aims straight at the hearts of digital natives AND digital immigrants who are closer to my age.

Home pages and social media platforms have become the primary points of entry to all our organizations—each one is like an interactive storefront with many doors.  If you have the means, you should invest in adaptive web design—a template that adapts and resizes according to whatever device you’re using. The School of the Arts will launch a mobile-first design this fall. All of us must operate under the assumption that from now on, most people will find us with their mobile blinders on. So we have to ensure that our first digital impression is one that grabs and sustains attention.  Aim for the heart, connect with their passions, and you’ll hook them to discover more.

“Own a Niche”  

The word “niche” seems to be widely misunderstood as a narrow segment. At Southern Living, our “niche” was the Southern region, and our market was about 18 million consumers. That’s a huge and lucrative niche. But many organizations are afraid to be pigeonholed and fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all people, and risk losing their identity in the process.

Time Inc., the parent company for Southern Living, learned this the hard way. It might sound counterintuitive, but executives in New York pushed toward making Southern Living “less southern.” They hoped to compete for major ad buys that favored national women’s lifestyle brands like Family Circle magazine. By the time I got there, readers had begun to vote against that direction with their pocketbooks. I received many passionate letters begging me to bring back “the old Southern living.” What they were really asking me to do was to put the South back into Southern Living--to reinforce the one thing that set us apart and had won the hearts of generations of Southern women. You abandon your niche, and your market will abandon you. 

I’m facing a similar problem at the School of the Arts. The “U” is a very recent addition to UNCSA. Many older alumni and a few diehards still refer to the school as NCSA—the North Carolina School of the Arts--and there’s a large faction that will always reject the “U.” From what I can tell, it was move to transcend the arts conservatory niche and align with the massive, mainstream UNC brand. Their hope was to broaden awareness and increase support during a time of catastrophic budget cuts. As intended, the addition of the “U” almost immediately shifted the identity of the school—but I’d say it was not for the better. What had once been seen, at least in arts circles, as the nation’s premier public arts Conservatory, suddenly adopted a name that made it seem to the wider public like another branch campus. When I announced my big career change last year, most of my friends wished me well in Chapel Hill. They assumed I was going to work in the fine arts department of a major university.

I will not abandon the “U” in UNCSA, but I have made it my mission to reclaim our identity as a conservatory. We must embrace and market the fact that the pedagogy, students, and faculty in a conservatory are nothing like what you’d find at a traditional university. My experience at several national brands has taught me that when you have a clearly defined market, the success of your organization depends on owning and leveraging the very things that set you apart.

“Shatter Perceptions”

Let’s be honest. The arts world, like higher education, can seem pretty insular at times. It’s hard to see that the work we do can be obscured by what people on the outside think we are doing. Annual focus groups of the consumers you have and the consumers you want should top every arts leader’s to-do list. 

Sometimes you just need a hail mary. At Southern Living, we poured our hearts into developing content, events, and franchises targeted at the daughters of our longtime subscribers, but we couldn’t shake the label of “grandma’s magazine.” So, in a bold move that I knew many of our longtime subscribers would hate, we attached a special beauty and fashion edition on the BACK of a spring issue—so as not to be perceived as taking away from the regular issue--and we shot Hayden Panettiere, star of the hit series “Nashville,” for the back cover. Now that got all the daughters talking. 

You might not think of it at first, but graphic design can dramatically affect the way we see a brand. At the School of the Arts, our website is so outdated and poorly designed it makes us look like a stodgy classical conservatory that doesn’t embrace modern technology. Our new website, coming this fall, should forever shatter that perception. I’ve been very outspoken about my perception of this logo. The shield was added along with the “U” to evoke centuries-old universities, and the swooshes represent the roads to each of the five arts conservatories on our campus. First of all, one should never have to explain the meaning of a logo. Secondly, I apologize if I offend anyone by saying this, but this logo says to me that UNCSA grants nursing degrees. The plan is to unveil an edgier, more artistic logo later this year. 

Homepages, logos, and the choice of photography can dramatically influence the way people see you. So can your spokespeople. Much to everyone’s surprise, I recruited this woman to be a contributing editor for Southern Living: Jenna Bush Hager is young, Southern, very stylish, and was starting to come into her own at NBC. I thought she would make a great brand ambassador for her generation. At UNCSA, we have many ambassadors.  Some of the best among them are trustees who have close ties to the state’s political and business establishment. Like any good steward, I plan to arm them with this year very succinct talking points about who we are, what we do, and why we matter, so they can shatter and shift perceptions with friends in high places who have no affinity for the arts.

“Turn STEM Into STEAM”

I’m preaching to the choir in this church when I say there’s a letter missing in STEM— the “A” for Arts to spell STEAM--the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. All of us need to advocate long and hard for STEAM. 

I could have devoted my entire talk to this subject. But since all of you know the value of arts education, I’ll just say this: it’s time to stop thinking of education as a way to stamp out human robots for today’s workforce. The truth is: no one knows for sure what our workforce needs will be tomorrow, let alone 10 or 20 years from now. But here’s one thing we do know for sure: employers consider creativity one of the top three personality traits most important to career success, because those who are creative have critical thinking skills and know how to innovate. And 80 percent of employers say they can’t find enough creative problem solvers.

I am so weary of stories about the comparative value of an engineering degree versus a theatre degree. The data doesn’t even count project or contract employees, who run much of the arts world, and often make a good living at it. These aren’t considered REAL jobs like those long-term, stable and secure jobs you can get so easily in big corporations these days. The media loves to reinforce the old stereotypes, so I was thrilled to see a USA Today article on how employers are beginning to realize that “arts and literature students often have skills that graduates of programs like business administration may lack.” The story also cited excellent job opportunities and growth for students who have studied visual and performing arts, studio arts, dramatic arts, fine and studio arts management, and music. I spoke just last week with a UNCSA drama alumnus who’s now a senior executive at Google. And guess what: he’s the go to guy for every major presentation because he can tell a story, and own any room.

So when people ask, “what can you do with an BFA?” You say: “anything you want. That’s the point.” You also can take pleasure in mentioning that Michael Eisner, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company, and Abbe Raven, former Chairman and CEO of the History Channel and the A+E Network (SLIDE: perhaps split screen Eisner with Mickey ears or in front of Disneyworld theme parks/ something of Abbe Raven) were both theater majors. 

“Take a Leap of Strategy”

Before I explain, I need to vent. The word innovation is so overused these days it makes me wince every time I hear it. Let me just say it: Having to innovate all the time is exhausting. The global imperative to be fresh, original, exciting, young, hip, relevant, new, bold, creative, inventive--all while cutting costs and doing more with less and engaging new audiences and building new communities and enlisting new partners and launching new apps and joining the conversation and increasing your likes, fans, and followers on social media—it just shuts a lot of people down, especially the staff and supporters you need the most to help you drive all this innovation. That’s why I’ve seen so many people, including myself, cling desperately and subconsciously to the comfort and false security of what has always worked. It stands to reason, if it worked for so many years, then tweaking that process should keep us going for many more years, right?


Legacy organizations like performing arts centers, museums, symphonies, and universities must work constantly and vigilantly to turn strategic paralysis into strategic agility. Strategic agility. 

People waste too much time in meetings talking about what they CAN’T do, or WHY they can’t do it, instead of what they CAN do, and HOW they can do it. To make that shift, it’s much less daunting to focus on what I call  small experiments with radical intent—in other words, small investments of time and money that may—or may not—deliver long-term gains. 

I’d like to share one successful example of leap of strategy that required a big leap of faith at Southern Living, and one leap of strategy that’s in the works at the School of the Arts.

At Southern Living, it started as an indie, amateur concert series called Biscuits & Jam. In my first few months, I violated a longstanding editorial taboo by suggesting we align with the country music scene in Nashville. This idea was met with accusations of selling out, turning “redneck,” and going totally “off brand.” I looked at it as an opportunity to get a toehold in a hugely lucrative industry, and tap into some of the sponsorships, advertisers, and audiences that went with it. If we judge success by the number of likes on Facebook, then we were clearly missing an opportunity: country music, the genre, had 10,045,665 likes on Facebook as of last week. Southern Living: 1,071, 892. I figured if we could win the hearts of just a fraction of that audience, it could be a big win.

Our digital team balked that it would cost as much as a Lady Gaga concert to shoot a three minute video and would hear none of it. So we worked our connections and booked a session with a country indie darling, Jason Isbell. He stopped by our headquarters one day to play just two songs on his way to perform a concert in town. Easy. We asked our staff photographers, who normally shoot bundt cakes and travel stories, to film it. Our Test Kitchen brought the biscuits, and the band brought the “jam.” We shot it in one take, edited the whole thing down to a few minutes, and ran it on YouTube. I won’t go into the history of it, but suffice it to say that we kept making better videos and booking bigger bands, then partnered with Country Music Television and, eventually, sold a seven-figure sponsorship of Biscuits & Jam to AT&T.  It should be noted that none of this had anything to do with the print magazine. It was entirely new revenue, an entirely new platform, and attracted an entirely new consumer to the brand.

This experiment taught me two important lessons: First, you don’t need to get anything perfect from the start, you just need to get it going and begin a process of iteration and improvement as you go. If it at any point along the way it doesn’t work, just try something else. Second, the right partnership can not only expand your footprint, it can make you seem way cooler than you really are to a community that had always considered you an old stalwart.

At the School of the Arts, my predecessor launched the Music Academy of the American South to achieve the same goal, but it was seen by many as a threat to the classical music conservatory that was founded with the opening of the school in 1965. The idea was wildly successful with the public and patrons, but had too few internal supporters, so it died on the vine. I asked someone in the music school about bringing it back, and they clenched their fists on the table and said, “We are just a classical conservatory.” That’s when I realized if I can’t gently push people out of their comfort zones, we’ll never overcome the major issues of changing demographics, competition for enrollment, and new sources of revenue. It reminded me once again of something I heard 1,000 times in the corporate world: innovate or die. The Music Academy of the American South hardly diluted the school’s classical identity; it actually shined a spotlight on it and has the potential to broaden our base of support.

But I’m not interested in dictating what our music programs or curriculum should be--that needs to come from the faculty and stakeholders inside the music school. They must own every idea, or we’ll be treading water for the next 50 years. To do that, I’ve enlisted the help of EmcArts, a NY-based nonprofit that helps organizations adapt to change and evolve their culture. In our first meeting with faculty, staff, and key stakeholders from the community—like the President of the Winston-Salem Symphony—we were asked to choose two images from a collection of photos on the table. One photo for the way they see the School of Music now. The other photo for the way we WANT to see the School of Music in the future. We had to make a quick gut decision. What’s amazing to me is that the “now” images are lovely—classical sculpture and paintings, pleasant places to be, all nice feeling—but mostly static and frozen in time, in the past. The future images are dynamic, moving, edgy, soaring, fun, and flavorful. 

The contrast surprised everyone in the room. The exercise opened a door to our future, and led us into a safe, non-threatening space to dream and ask ourselves “What if?” Before you know it, we’ll be asking “When?” and “How?” Two years from now, I expect this leap of strategy to lead us into uncharted territory for the school, and define a niche we never knew we could own. 

I will end with a number: 5,713,212. Any guess what that might be? It’s the number of “likes” for Classical Music on Facebook. That’s 1.4 million more likes than NASCAR.

May 19, 2015