Interview:  Dan Mayer, The ArtsCenter’s New Executive Director

Posted by Jenks Miller


Dan Mayer, veteran arts advocate and attorney from Seattle, Washington, took the reigns as The ArtsCenter’s Executive Director in the fall of 2015.  In the months since his relocation to Carrboro, Dan has been getting to know the Triangle and we’ve been getting to know Dan.  As The ArtsCenter gears up for its summer programming, we took a moment to check in with him about his impressions of the Triangle’s arts community and to talk a bit about his vision for The ArtsCenter itself.


You’ve been personally and professionally invested in community-based nonprofits long before your move to The ArtsCenter in Carrboro; your career over the past decade and a half has included a variety of leadership roles in arts organizations.  Could you recount one or two highlights from your career as a nonprofit Executive Director and an arts and entertainment attorney?


The most rewarding experiences for me as an arts administrator have been to watch that “aha” moment with an audience or classroom.  That moment when a light bulb is switched and an audience gets to its feet not because it’s the end of the show but as an expression of a memorable evening that inspired them and gave them new insights into their lives or the lives of others.  Similarly when a classroom of kids is all creating individual pieces of art but you as the teacher feel the energy of the group around the power of participating in the creative process.


As an attorney much of my time was spent protecting and defending that creative process.  In the 1990s I worked to defend the principles of public funding of all the arts including art we don’t agree with or is not our taste. I was privileged to work to help defend the rights of artists that present minority viewpoints and challenge society and try to move the needle of public opinion.  Art should make us question our assumptions and help us find common ground as a society.


At this point, you’ve lived in Carrboro for the better part of a year.  What are some of your impressions of the Triangle as you settle in?  Any favorite restaurants so far?


I’ve enjoyed getting a chance to explore the region and visit new venues.  There is an amazing abundance of places to hear great music and see theater every weekend in a great variety of settings.  I’ve attended wonderful chamber concerts in a retirement community, awesome stage performances in outdoor amphitheaters and shows in small intimate clubs and theaters.  My hobby is to count houses—after doing this work for so many years I can estimate crowds with amazing accuracy.  It’s almost automatic when I walk into a venue.


I’ve had lots of great food since I’ve moved to the area—there isn’t much Southern Food in the Seattle area—and I’ve enjoyed learning about the mysteries of the biscuit.  People take their biscuits very seriously here.  I enjoyed special occasions at Acme with my family and always head to Venable or Glasshalfull for a great lunch or dinner.  Of course, opening a Rise next to The ArtsCenter has made us rethink getting a company gym membership.


How does the Triangle’s arts community compare to that of Seattle?


In some ways the communities are very different.  There is a strong Asian influence in many of the arts in the Northwest and Washington is ground zero for Glass Art because of the thirty year impact that Dale Chihuly and the Pilchuk School has had on the area.  Until I moved here, I was not aware of all the variations on Bluegrass Music—I think there are more hybrids of Bluegrass than Eskimo words for snow.  I am also very impressed with the vibrant visual arts scene in the Triangle; there are many excellent arts programs throughout the area and we all seem to work together and just build audience for various First/Second/Third/Fourth Fridays.


I’ve enjoyed meeting local playwrights and seeing work written and produced by local actors; I’ve seen some amazing theater since moving to the region.  Unfortunately, one thing that Seattle area has in common with the Triangle is that it is tough to make a living in theater in both regions and we lose talent to cities with commercial theater and film industries.


How have your observations about the Triangle’s arts community influenced the direction you want to take The ArtsCenter?  What is your vision for The ArtsCenter’s future at this point?


There is remarkable ownership of this organization by artists, audiences and community members—everyone has a story to tell about a memorable play or concert or about their kids attending camps many years ago.  That loyalty is the greatest asset the organization has and should not be taken for granted.  That loyalty, however, also brings with it many differing opinions of the path the organization should take in the future.  It’s my job to listen to the stakeholders and navigate a direction that ensures the financial and programmatic strength of the organization for the decades to come.


An important component of my job is to chart a path to a new facility for The ArtsCenter.  Focusing on the facility without building the programming would be a huge mistake however.  We must continue to our educational programming, building on our reputation of excellence and developing opportunities for outreach in the community.  Orange County is changing and The ArtsCenter must adapt to these changes in demographics and community needs to remain relevant to all.


The ArtsCenter has a history of working with other arts organizations to help realize their own visions and to bolster the strength of the Triangle’s arts scene in general.  Could you explain why collaboration among arts organizations and community members is so important?  And what is it that The ArtsCenter can offer in this kind of collaboration?


The ArtsCenter is a home for many collaborations –we are a venue and a partner for dozens of local arts organizations and projects regionally annually.


Collaboration is essential because a/ none of us have the resources to serve the broad network of needs in our community and by working together we can bring the arts to a larger and more diverse audience, and, b/ because many art forms are closely connected and through collaboration we can demonstrate the intersection of music and theater or visual arts and dance—they are all means of expression addressing issues of our shared humanity.