Force of Nature: Emil Kang

Emil Kang’s insatiable curiosity spurs big returns in the arts

by Iza Wojciechowska

photographs by Ben McKeown

When the lights dim in Memorial Hall on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, when the crowd quiets and the stage comes alive with world-class modern dance, Afro-Cuban jazz, or brand-new chamber music, there’s one person in the audience for whom the art is always personal.

For Emil Kang, the director of Carolina Performing Arts (CPA), bringing music, dance, and theater to the Triangle isn’t just a job – it’s the air he breathes. And being able to pull off successful performances night after night is the result of his own personal journeys: the life journey that brought him this role by unexpected means, and the annual travel he personally and tirelessly embarks on to find the world’s best artists and bring them to North Carolina. Kang came to UNC in 2004 to launch CPA, tasked with transforming the university’s arts program. When interviewing for the job, he notoriously said that he hoped to make the arts as big as basketball on campus – a bold claim at a university holding seven men’s national championship wins. Now in its 13th season and attracting first-rate performers plus millions of dollars in grants, CPA has distinguished itself as one of the most prestigious and exciting performing arts programs in the country. It’s all a reflection of Kang’s remarkable taste, work ethic, and inspiring curiosity.

A ‘rudderless’ childhood
Kang, 49, is put-together and energetic, and his enthusiasm is infectious. When he talks, he often gazes off behind his glasses, into the middle distance when reminiscing, only to return to the here and now with a big smile and unabashed laugh.
He wasn’t always so self-assured. The son of Korean immigrants who settled in Queens in the 1960s and then Long Island, Kang grew up isolated, a Korean Catholic in a predominantly white and Jewish community. He and his younger sister were the only Korean kids at school. His parents would travel hours to meet up with other Korean families, where the adults would compare notes on their children’s accomplishments and trade advice on the best schools, best music teachers, and best careers.

“I was raised in a childhood of expectation, not of support,” Kang says, noting that this was the standard mindset of Koreans beginning new lives in America, desperate to provide better circumstances for their children than they had had back home.

As a result, he did what his parents expected of him: He started playing the piano in first grade, then the violin in third. He became the concertmaster of his orchestra. He participated in church groups and Korean classes and did his homework. But he never had much of an opportunity to talk about what he was learning or feeling. He was bullied and teased in school and describes himself as “completely rudderless” at the time. He was shy, introverted, and afraid. “I was never asked my opinion, and I never had a chance to formulate one about anything,” he says.

He went to college at the University of Rochester, where he arrived still unsure of his identity. He took pre-med classes, on track for a couple of years to fulfill his parents’ hopes that he become a doctor. He also continued his work with the violin, taking music classes; these were not to provide a fallback career option or pursue a hobby, he says, but to make him a more interesting medical school candidate. An overachiever by no choice of his own, he majored in economics to appease his father, who thought business would make for an adequate career back-up plan. He dutifully finished school in four years, fulfilling all pre-med requirements. Secretly, in-between all that, he also acquired an art history minor that changed his life.

The minor was sparked by a class he took his junior year, one on impressionism and post-impressionism he had enrolled in on a whim. But the professor saw something in Kang and nurtured his intellectual curiosity. “This was the first teacher I ever had – and I was now 20 years old – who did not just care what I thought, but would beat it out of me,” Kang says. “I didn’t know if I was a Democrat or a Republican because no one ever asked me, and I never thought about it. But as a writer, writing about art (for class), I had to have an opinion.” His bond with this professor grew, and she inspired him to apply for jobs in art galleries. Against everyone else’s advice, he forewent a job offer at a major bank to become a receptionist at the Eli Wilner art gallery after graduation. Kang considers this professor his most important mentor. The pivotal point in his life, he says, was her challenge and intellectual support, and he never forgot it. He kept in touch with her until she passed away a few years ago.

Early curiosity
After a few years at the gallery, first as receptionist, then as manager, Kang felt that something was missing. One night he went to a concert at Carnegie Hall, and he found his answer.

Although he had stopped playing the violin at age 22, the concert reignited Kang’s passion for orchestral music. Watching the musicians on stage at Carnegie, he says, reminded him of his violin performances. The show motivated him to look for jobs in the orchestra realm. “I thought maybe it was my destiny to involve music in my life on my own terms,” he says. After blindly sending more than 300 letters to every orchestra he could find, and never hearing back from most of them, he found a job as a receptionist again: this time at the American Composers Orchestra, a small group that plays contemporary music. He took a 50-percent pay cut and moved home with his parents. They despaired. But despite the tension at home, he says in his gut he knew he was finally on track.

In fact, this job launched the rest of his career. At American Composers Orchestra, Kang had the opportunity to meet all of the country’s major living composers. He was just supposed to bring them water, but instead he’d go to every rehearsal, sit with the composers, ask questions, engage. He’d finally learned to access the curiosity and confidence within him – a skill he says he owes exclusively to his college art history professor.

“How to hear music didn’t come from my music teachers. It came from her, because curiosity is curiosity,” he says.
It paid off when he was selected for the prestigious Orchestra Management Fellowship Program, with the support of many of these famous composers he’d come to know over the years. The fellowship is a launching pad for orchestra managers, and after spending a year shadowing CEOs, he became the manager of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 1996. He met his wife, Lisa, there, and soon was invited to become the vice president of the Detroit Symphony – a major step up. In 1999, he moved to Detroit, proposed to Lisa, and six months after he started, his boss quit. Kang was asked to become the interim president, but after a full search, he was asked to step into the position permanently.

This was an industry milestone. Thanks to a series of lucky breaks and obsessive hard work, Kang became the first Asian American president of a major orchestra. At age 31, he was also the youngest-ever president. His parents were overjoyed. Kang was overwhelmed.

He had waded into the Detroit Symphony’s financial challenges, and though he was a clear visionary in directing the symphony’s programming, a few poor choices, union disputes, and the responsibility of managing a $40 million company with 120 employees (when he had previously only ever managed four) got to him. In 2003, four years after arriving in Detroit, Kang was asked to leave. He was, he says, crushed. But those who knew him then already recognized his massive potential and had an inkling of what was to come.

“What occurred to me, as I observed the challenges he was having, was what a performing arts presenter he would be,” says Ken Fischer, president emeritus of the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan and one of the founders of Major University Presenters (MUPs), a consortium of 19 elite university performing arts programs. “Here’s an enormous talent in Emil Kang, and I’d imagine what he’d be like on a university campus. He’s smart, and he had great ambition, and he cared about audiences. Why not let him loose to be creative? Because there’s only so much you can do when you’re heading a symphony orchestra.”

After several months of jobless depression and uncertainty, as he remembers it, Kang received a phone call in 2004 from the president of the North Carolina Symphony, who had also been a fellow in the Orchestra Management Fellowship Program. He was on a search committee for a job at UNC, a brand-new comprehensive arts director role. Not long after, Kang was sitting in then-chancellor James Moeser’s office talking about their shared love of Mahler, about change, opportunity, students, about arts and basketball.

“We were about to have a wonderfully renovated (performance) hall, but little to put in it,” Moeser says. “I had seen at other universities what a first-rate presenting program looked like, and I wanted Carolina to be doing what the best universities in America were doing: bringing the cultures of the world to the university. … So we launched a national search for a newly created position of executive director of the arts.

“… When Emil Kang came into my office for our first conversation, I knew that we had found the right person for this job.”

In 2004, Kang moved to North Carolina to become director of the newly minted CPA. He arrived at UNC with nothing: a one-person office, no boss, no precedent, and a blank slate. Fourteen years later, CPA is one of the top university presenters in the country, having transformed UNC’s relationship with the arts and launched Chapel Hill, and with it North Carolina, into a celebrated spotlight.

A very exceptional view of the world’
Emil Kang’s office on UNC’s campus is filled with books. There’s a standing desk in the corner, photos of Kang’s wife and daughter, Emma, and a big bowl of unfamiliar coins into which he empties his pockets when he returns from his many international trips. There’s a framed photo on the wall of him with President Obama, who appointed him to the National Council on the Arts in 2012.

When I meet Kang for the first time in his office, I notice a couple of books laid out nonchalantly: a collection of Polish poetry by Tadeusz Różewicz on the coffee table, and a book about Polish theater director Grzegorz Jarzyna on the desk. I make a remark about the poet, whom I admire, and Kang quotes a few lines from memory. We spend 10 minutes talking about Poland before anything else. I realize it can’t be a coincidence, and that Kang must have seen my (very Polish) name in an introductory email and fished these books out just for me, just for this personally tinged conversation. I’m struck by the gesture, but I later learn that this is typical of Kang: He pays attention, he makes the extra effort, he thrives on personal connections.

This is clear in the hands-on way Kang approaches CPA’s programming, which has taken him to 68 countries and counting. He spends much of his time traveling to find the best global artists, on their own turf. “When Emil wanted to think more intentionally about Eastern cultures at Carolina Performing Arts, rather than looking at the rest of the country and what other universities were doing, Emil bought some authentic garb, grabbed the director of the Asia Society, and went on a global exploration of fairly obscure places to unearth traditions and forms that would make sense at Carolina,” says Mary Lou Aleskie, director of the Hopkins Center of the Arts at Dartmouth College. “He takes this global adventure and brings back what he sees as valuable.”

At the same time, Aleskie says, he mines the local community. She points to CPA’s celebration of iconic composer Philip Glass’s 80th birthday. Kang not only brought artists from all over the world to perform Glass’s work, but he also put together a tribute featuring the UNC Symphony Orchestra and Durham-based Merge Records artists. “It’s this beautiful balance of the world and its connections there in North Carolina, and that’s a very exceptional view of the world,” Aleskie says.

For Kang, travel is a critical part of the job. He takes pride in the fact thatnone of his programming comes from agents or websites. And he takes pride in being able to transport these experiences, these talents, to a place where people might never otherwise experience them.

“For students from North Carolina, which is 82 percent of our freshman class, many don’t come from big cities. Hopefully, for the first time, they might see a Sufi musician from Senegal (thanks to CPA),” Kang says. “The Carolina experience, just as much as going to a basketball game, should be to discover something new about the world and this journey of global cultural literacy – and even more than that, to really understand how you respond to the unknown.”

Inextricably linked to CPA’s global emphasis is Kang’s focus on commissioning new work. Over CPA’s 13 seasons, Kang has commissioned 50 new pieces, “from a small flute piece to a gigantic theater piece and everything in-between,” he says. Just this season, CPA has two remarkable commissioned dance pieces: Big Dance Theater’s 17c and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s Formosa, which combines modern dance with ancient aesthetic arts into an abstract, thrilling work. Formosa will show at Memorial Hall in March.

Commissions have also allowed CPA to put together sweeping, ambitious programs set around a central theme. The 2016-2017 season saw a year-long program titled Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey, which shone a light on Islam and Sufism through the work of artists from non-Arab Muslim-majority countries. Performers from Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Senegal dispelled the notion of a single narrative of Muslim identity and gave audiences a glimpse of the richness of their cultures.

Another blockbuster program was The Rite of Spring at 100, which took over the 2012-2013 season to celebrate the centennial of Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, set to Igor Stravinsky’s music. The piece was bold and unexpected when it came out in 1913, leading to riots in Paris and marking a milestone in Modernist art. Kang’s all-out treatment of its anniversary was itself bold and revolutionary, receiving national acclaim and attention, with write-ups in The New Yorker and The New York Times, among others. He paid homage to the brilliant piece by commissioning 11 new works and featuring nine world and two U.S. premieres for the occasion. The line-up included world-class artists such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, choreographer Bill T. Jones, the Joffrey Ballet, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer. The Rite of Spring at 100 put CPA on the map in many ways, including recognition by the prestigious Mellon Foundation, which awarded this project two major grants.

“The Rite of Spring project was just a beautifully conceived, audaciously ambitious, wonderful commemoration of this very important anniversary, and Emil was the first to identify that,” says Susan Feder, a program officer at the Mellon Foundation. “Emil has an intellectual curiosity that is probably second-to-none in the field, and he was able to pull (The Rite of Spring) off in precisely the way he had planned it, without any compromise.”

CPA’s next big focus is a new performance space, CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio, which opens its doors this month with an interactive installation called Sound Maze and immersive performances by theater collective Gob Squad. Located just off campus, CURRENT is a first-of-its-kind arts space in a building that also includes apartments, offices, dorms, and a Target. Kang says the idea is to move art out of “temples of culture” like theaters and into noncommittal, everyday spaces in which everyone can participate.

Arts as big as basketball
Although Kang was brought on to lead CPA, arguably a daunting and consuming task in itself, his plate is far fuller than that. In 2016, Chancellor Carol Folt appointed him UNC’s first-ever special assistant to the chancellor for the arts.

“Before I even came here, people were talking about Emil Kang, this amazing person in Chapel Hill,” says Folt, who came to UNC in 2013 after serving as interim president of Dartmouth. “His reputation is as a person who makes things happen in the arts, has a big vision for how arts can transform education, create a new generation of artists, build community, and be an economic generator.”

In this role, Kang is spearheading a groundbreaking initiative called Arts Everywhere, which incorporates performing arts throughout UNC’s campus in thought-provoking ways. Last April’s Arts Everywhere Day showcased 50 performances, pop-up concerts, and interactive art installation; ten pianos were placed, and played, in outdoor spaces across campus.

“For this to work, it needs to have people excited at all levels and build from the strengths that are already there,” Folt says. “Emil has been building what I think is a really unusual collaboration in Chapel Hill, which makes this the right place and the right time for an initiative like this.” Kang finds the new role exciting and challenging, as he figures out new ways to deliver art to people, especially those who don’t seek it out on their own.

“In some ways, you can say it really is an opportunity for me to fulfill that emotional vision, the crazy one, about arts and basketball,” Kang says. “Every single person on this campus needs to believe that the arts are for them. I don’t care if it’s the housekeeper or a distinguished professor or a nurse. The arts are for them.” Kang also teaches every semester, and one of his greatest joys is encountering students who take his class to fulfill a requirement or because it seems easy, and watching their perspective transform under his tutelage.

Persis Bhadha took Music and Culture: Understanding the World through Music her freshman year. She was a biomedical engineering major who thought the course, which required students to attend 10 CPA performances throughout the semester, would be fun and might include free tickets to see Lady Gaga or Imagine Dragons. Suffice it to say she was underwhelmed by the syllabus that featured jazz flute, African dance, and a Noh play.

Yet as the semester went on, Bhadha found herself drawn to these performances, moved to tears and having epiphanies about the nature of art. “Ultimately, I was never watching a show – I was learning through shared experiences,” she says. “I probably won’t remember Euler’s formula after I graduate, but I will never forget watching Youssou N’Dour … Every performance, every night had such an impact on me in such a unique way. A great education is supposed to help you find your reason why, and I believe that Carolina Performing Arts and this class helped me find that reason.” Bhadha changed her academic trajectory as a result, creating her own major, “social entrepreneurship through the arts,” with Kang as her faculty sponsor.

Stories like these from Kang’s former students abound, from those who attribute career achievements to his eye-opening guidance to those who fondly remember the way he challenged them in class. It’s clear that Kang is paying forward the mentorship he received from his college art history professor and which he has never forgotten.

“He is, of course, an excellent professional, but I have met many talented professionals who do not necessarily possess the capacity or inclination to help nurture the next generation. For Emil, it is in his DNA,” says Matias Tarnopolsky, executive and artistic director of Cal Performances at the University of California at Berkeley.

A teacher; a mentor; a devoted father, husband, and son; special assistant to the chancellor; a member of countless committees and councils; an incessant traveler; and one of the most esteemed university performing arts presenters in the country. It’s difficult to fathom how Kang makes it all possible, and does everything so well. But he’ll be the first to admit that it hasn’t been easy getting here – and hasn’t become easy since – yet is all absolutely worth it.

“The responsibility we have as CPA is to be at the front of change,” Kang says. “It’s something that I worked really hard for, and I suffered, and it took a lot of work and a lot of sacrifices. I’m incredibly lucky – but it’s hard as hell. But I believe that what all young people need more than anything is that inspiration. This idea that someone believes that change is possible. What else does one need?”