George Holt remembers the phone call that almost changed his life.
It was from his mentor in Washington, D.C., and it went something like this: "George, why don't you come up to D.C. and be the director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival?"
This was 30 years ago, recalls Holt, director of performing arts and film programs at the North Carolina Museum of Art. On the line was Ralph Rinzler, co-founder of the influential festival held every summer on the National Mall since 1967. As a Duke undergrad in the early 1970s, Holt first attended and then interned at the Smithsonian event, bringing what he learned back home to create major cultural events in the Triangle.
The offer from Rinzler—a major figure in traditional music who shared stages with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez during the Greenwich Village folk boom, was credited with discovering Doc Watson, and won a Grammy as co-producer of the landmark Folkways: A Vision Shared album—must have seemed like a dream come true, in some respects.
On the other hand, Holt already had a lot going for him in North Carolina. After organizing a couple of folklife festivals at Duke in the mid-'70s, he'd headed up the N.C. Bicentennial Folklife Festival at Durham's West Point on the Eno Park in 1976; its massive success gave rise to the annual Festival for the Eno, which continues to this day. That led to a directorship of folklife programming at the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, a job he ultimately decided to keep when Rinzler came calling in the early '80s.
"That was the big fork in the road for me," Holt admits. "I went up and I talked to him about it. In the end I decided not to do it. There were many years afterward where I would revisit that moment; it's just one of those big decisions in life. But I don't regret it."
The beneficiaries of that decision were the residents of the Triangle. "I was very attached to the area," he says. "I felt like I had a great experience here." Even a two-year diversion in the mid-'90s as program director for the Olympics-related Southern Crossroads Festival in Atlanta couldn't sway him from returning to North Carolina.
The Olympics job did, however, eventually result in Holt venturing into a new realm. Larry Wheeler, who'd hired Holt at the Department of Cultural Resources 20 years earlier, had become director of the N.C. Museum of Art, and in the fall of 1996, he needed someone to turn the museum's newly built outdoor amphitheater into a major seasonal venue.
Holt has done just that, presenting a carefully curated batch of acclaimed singer-songwriters, traditionalist treasures, international acts and offbeat surprises every summer. The NCMA's track record is a model of quality artistry and cultural diversity: Its 17-year run has included everyone from legendary New Orleans song stylist Allen Toussaint to Cape Breton fiddle master Natalie MacMaster to Texas country-folk supergroup the Flatlanders to Grammy-winning Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour (in his Triangle debut).
North Carolina musicians also have figured prominently in the museum's mix: Contemporary stars such as the Avett Brothers and the Carolina Chocolate Drops played the amphitheater on their way up, and singer-songwriter Tift Merritt recorded a live album there in 2005. Perhaps most significantly, North Carolina folk/bluegrass legends Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs made multiple appearances over the years before their respective deaths in 2012. (A Watson show booked for last summer became an extensive symposium and memorial concert after his death a few weeks prior.)
Supplementing the concerts is a selection of films (shown on a big screen adjacent to the amphitheater stage) surveying the past year's most acclaimed box-office hits, along with occasional classics and eccentric picks. Sometimes smaller-draw concerts are paired with movies that fit the music's aesthetic (such as an upcoming Aug. 24 bill with the Lost Bayou Ramblers and Beasts of the Southern Wild).
And, Holt notes, the Paperhand Puppet Intervention productions that have helped close out the season since 2007 "grow bigger every year." (This year's show, City of Frogs, is set for Sept. 13–15.)
In the offseason, Holt oversees the films screened in the museum's East Building auditorium, though that series is curated by Laura Boyes (an occasional INDY Week contributor). And it's worth remembering that despite the profile boost the summer concerts provide, the NCMA is first and foremost a visual art facility.
"It seems incongruous that I would go from dealing with this hard-core traditional and popular music to working at the Museum of Art," Holt acknowledges. "But my formative experience was at the Smithsonian—and that's primarily a museum; it's a museum complex. So I could see the power in that linkage."
Indeed, the folk-festival experience initiated at those Smithsonian events proved invaluable to Holt in dealing with the NCMA's outdoor venue, which "was not fully realized as a formal performing arts theater or amphitheater," he explains. "There's no big backstage area; we have to improvise all that. We stage all the dressing rooms and the green room in the museum. And in the background where I was coming from, we were creating these festival experiences in these completely raw spaces; like at the Eno Park, there was no infrastructure for anything. We had to just invent all that."
His duties at the Atlanta Olympics proved similarly valuable, in an entirely different way. "I was working with much bigger-name performers," he noted. "I got a little more inside knowledge about what you have to do to deal with music on a more commercial level. That was the real growing part of the gig for me."
The challenge at the NCMA, ultimately, is to strike that perfect balance between art and commerce—to find performers who draw enough to fill a 2,700-capacity venue but who bring a creative spark to traditional foundations. Some artists are relatively obvious fits; this summer's big draws have included Mexican-American ensemble Los Lobos and Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard. But Holt takes particular pride in presenting such left-field acts as France's gypsy jazz combo Les Primitifs du Futur, who he helped introduce to American audiences when he brought them to the museum in 2005, and last year's AfroCubism collaboration of musicians from Mali and Cuba.
"I'll always be drawn to musicians and performers who are expressive and respectful of their cultural roots," Holt asserts, adding that he feels the crowds at the museum share such a sentiment. "The NCMA has proved to be a hospitable venue for artists and audiences, and it's fantastic to observe the synergy between the two on a good night."