Emil J. Kang thinks big and takes risks, two major things artists look for in supporters.
Kang is the executive and artistic director of Carolina Performing Arts at UNC-Chapel Hill, a program that brings internationally renowned musicians, dancers and theater to campus.
Since he launched the program in 2005, he has taken the program from a small enterprise — himself the sole employee — to a staff of 33, with more than 100 student workers.
He has forged long-term partnerships with artists, commissioned daring new works and has grown audiences, despite booking sometimes controversial performers, especially in dance. Last year, he opened a second venue for productions, CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio, down the street from the UNC campus for immersive and even more edgy performances.
He travels regularly around the world to maintain the program’s high standards and to cultivate relationships with artists everywhere. But he also must have the money to support such a program.
“From the moment I landed,” Kang said about his arrival at UNC, “one of my jobs was to fundraise.”
The goal: to be the country’s “leading university arts presenter,” according to the program’s website.
He’s found success. Kang said the top 20 donors for the university’s athletic program are his top donors. Carolina Performing Arts has received $5 million in grants over the last seven years from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, he said.
What drives him every day, he said, is the pleasure of discovery. For example, he likes to get lost in new cities.
“There’s always a point of confusion, but I think some people stop at that moment,” he said.
For him? “It’s a thrill,” he said.
Kang sat for a recent interview inside his office in the former Porthole Restaurant building in downtown Chapel Hill, overlooking an alleyway. It’s a short walk from UNC’s Memorial Hall, the main performance space.
Later this week, Canada-based company Kidd Pivot will present “Revisor,” a piece Kang co-commissioned. The company is led by dance creator Crystal Pite from Vancouver, Canada. She is known for beautiful movement full of details, but embraces absurdity and darker forces. With writer Jonathon Young, she has created this piece based on 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s farcical play, “The Government Inspector.”
It’s just one of the dozens of works Kang has commissioned with almost half of them having their U.S. or world premieres on the UNC campus.
Kang grew up thinking he would be a classical violinist but he gave it up at age 22. Instead, he ended up in the field of orchestra management, working for the Seattle Symphony, the American Composers Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony. When he was recruited to work at UNC in 2004 by then-Chancellor James Moeser, he was the Detroit Symphony’s president and executive director at the age of 35.
The move south was a mutually beneficial one. Moeser wanted to build up UNC’s performing arts series, and Kang knew about classical music, but little about dance, theater or the visual arts.
“The reason that I came was because I needed to re-engage in my own curiosity,” he said.
Fourteen seasons later, Kang not only leads Carolina Performing Arts, he is UNC’s special assistant to the chancellor for the arts
Inside Kang’s office is a stand-up desk next to the window. A couch sits across the way, along with a chair by a coffee table holding a large blue glass bowl containing hundreds of foreign coins. Commenting on his coin collection, Kang said, “I have a crazy travel schedule,” he said.
One of those trips early in his tenure was to Montreal, Canada, in 2007, where he first encountered Canadian choreographer Marie Chouinard.
“She just blew me away,” Kang said. “It was something I didn’t understand.”
Then he met with her after the show, and Chouinard said she was working on a new piece, based on the love story between Orpheus and Eurydice and the underworld.
“What’s she going to do?” Kang wondered.
It was only his second season at UNC, but he decided to co-produce her new work. As it progressed, he said, “From what I saw, I knew this was going to be hard for our audiences.”
It was 2009, his fourth season at UNC, when he presented Chouinard’s “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which included scenes of the underworld with men wearing platform heels, dancing atop giant marbles along the stage floor.
The turnout wasn’t great, maybe 500 people, in a hall that seated 1,434 after a $18 million renovation.
“I remember we actually had people who walked out of that performance,” Kang said. “A good 30 to 50 people walked out. One professor yelled at the usher, ‘I can’t believe we’re bringing pornography to Chapel Hill.’ We had letters written to us.”
Exiting the underworld, a dancer playing Eurydice — who wasn’t wearing clothes — crawled toward the audience.
“My face went white,” Kang said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, she’s touching people. Oh my God, oh my God.’ But the crowd went crazy. They just loved it.
“And so, I guess, I found out afterward in America, there aren’t many presenters who’d been courageous enough to bring her company.”
Today, Kang has co-produced three of Chouinard’s works, and her company has visited Chapel Hill four times, including this February.
Chouinard and her dancers with Compagnie Marie Chouinard presented “Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights,” bringing to life the Netherlands painter’s signature work in Madrid’s Prado museum.
Hardly anyone in the audience seemed to bat an eye at the nudity. Or, the surrealistic scenes: dancers riding others as if on horses, a screeching woman, a woman with a snake in her mouth, another with a yellow boot on her head, and near the end, the blinking of a blue eye.
Only one person appeared to have walked out at the most recent performance. At the end, the packed audience rose to its feet, yelling and stomping.
A balancing act
Kang is a man who said he likes to drive cars fast. He never eats the same thing every day. He also said he doesn’t mind living with the ambiguity that artists thrive on.
And he keeps busy. He leads UNC’s Arts Everywhere as well, an initiative begun by former Chancellor Carol Folt to integrate the arts into daily campus life.
And until recently, he taught in the UNC Music Department as a professor of practice. Time pressures took over.
Over the last 14 seasons, Kang’s philosophy of supporting artists for the long-term has only grown. He said he continues “to commit to long-term artistic partnerships with choreographers, with companies, with individual artists.”
He doesn’t rely on agents or managers or websites for bookings. To continue to build relationships with artists, he has found himself in such wintery places as Iceland this past December for a gathering of Nordic dance.
He doesn’t worry so much what a commission or performance’s outcome. Working with Chouinard over time, Kang said, he’s seen her develop a following.
“And, there isn’t a shock as much as there used to be,” he said.
Presenting dance, though, can be expensive. There needs to be sets, lighting and a safe-enough stage for dancing.
“What’s right?” Kang said at one point during the interview, later adding, “There’s no single solution. Art always takes a different tack.”
What: Kidd Pivot’s “Revisor”
When: March 21, 7:30 p.m.; March 22, 8 p.m.
Where: Memorial Hall at UNC at Chapel Hill
▪ Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, April 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Memorial Hall, with choreographer Ohad Naharin’s timely, haunting piece, “Venezuela”
▪ A double bill April 24-25 at 7:30 p.m. at CURRENT, with Shamel Pitts’ “Black Velvet: Architectures & Archetypes” and Bobbi Jene Smith’s “A Study on Effort,” each containing nudity and explicit/sexual content (appropriate for ages 16 years and older.)