Think of a great concert you've seen; it was in a club or a stadium or a theater, right? But last Monday, it's safe to conjecture, somebody walked away from the amphitheater at the North Carolina Museum of Art, saying, "That was the best concert I ever saw."
High art and pop music have only begun rubbing shoulders relatively recently. In 1964, when conservative pundit William F. Buckley sneered that the Beatles were "crowned heads of anti-music," his assessment reflected a commonly held view among the general public and museum heads alike, that only certain types of artistic expression belong in museums. But the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band just three years later brought on a seismic shift, and pop music began to be viewed as art.
Last week's appearance by Belle and Sebastian, a revered Scottish indie band that rarely tours, before a rapturous house at the NCMA, isn't unprecedented. But that billing—and others featuring big names this season, like Jason Isbell and Superchunk—speaks both to the strength of the series' reputation and its dynamic growth over twenty years, mirroring the direction that the museum is embracing as whole.
Much credit for the success of the NCMA's concert series goes to George Holt, the director of performing arts and film, who has curated the series since it began in 1997. After a slow start, Holt has made a tradition of featuring acts loved just as passionately as last week's stars (Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, and Wilco among them) to play in the amphitheater that is his to fill—not only with music in summer, but with creative film programming in cooler months.
This year's slate of shows by marquee names shows the extent to which the series has taken root. But when Holt came aboard, it was far from clear how to go about mixing museums and music. Holt says the museum itself lacked a clear vision about what a performing arts program would even look like, much less one on this scale.
"There is no other art museum in the U.S. that has a twenty-eight-hundred-to-three-thousand-person capacity stage attached to it," he says. "It's a unique animal and there were really no roadmaps."
Holt didn't immediately upend things. Initially, museum director Larry Wheeler gave him access to some tried-and-true performers, the stuff you would expect to encounter at a museum of art: the N.C. Symphony, the American Dance Festival with Bill T. Jones. But high art doesn't necessarily fill seats.
"Great programs," says Holt. "But they didn't bring in a lot of money."
At that point, Holt's previous work organizing roots music festivals—one of the reasons he'd been brought in—kicked in. Knowing that the programming had to attract enough of an audience to support the series with ticket revenue, he went with what he knew.*
His approach synced up perfectly with Wheeler's vision for the growth of the museum. Wheeler was eager to counter the perception of the museum as an elitist institution. Knowing that bringing in crowds to take in popular music would benefit the museum as a whole, he gave Holt free rein to book the series as he saw fit. So instead of the symphony, Holt brought in Los Lobos—a critically acclaimed Tex-Mex institution and a rollicking party band. He booked The Connells, Raleigh-bred compatriots of R.E.M., and others more interested in making a joyful noise than a deep artistic statement.
The music's growth has reflected that of the museum during the same period. Just as the museum has actively sought out the work of artists of diverse backgrounds, the series has long echoed that sentiment, beginning with its Africa Fete 99. Just as the museum has made a commitment to exhibiting experimental and cutting-edge works, the music series has featured artists of a truly modern pedigree. And just as the museum has begun to bring in world-class exhibits from artists like Calder and da Vinci, the series has brought in acts with international followings, such as Sheryl Crow.
Holt says the museum's programming and curatorial decisions down the line are undergirded by the notion that, in order to interest the next generation in art, you have to provide young people with a good experience at a museum.
With six sold-out shows so far this year and an ever-growing reputation within the music industry and among musicians, the series is at its peak. Still, despite all the success, Holt's default setting is to operate as if this is the last year, taking every step to ensure that the current season is the best it can possibly be. Even so, Holt's ultimate goal still isn't simply selling out shows.
"It's really nice when it happens, but our goal is to provide a really wonderful encounter with performers and artists that really deserve it, and hopefully broaden people's perceptions a little bit—and not to lose money," he says with a laugh.
Holt is quick to point out that the recent uptick in big names for the series is the result of various factors, including a partnership with Cat's Cradle. He also admits there's been some luck and serendipity involved in keeping the series tip-top. For example, this year, rather than North Carolina's typical summer swelter, the temperate evening air has provided an ideal accompaniment for some magical musical moments.
The stars have all aligned this summer, but Holt remains cautiously optimistic about the future.
"Every year is going to vary," he says, "but we hope we are on a new plateau."*Correction: This story originally stated that Holt previously held the job of the director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He was offered the job, but did not take it.