Rich Holly, Arts NC State’s new executive director, has an office pretty much like what you might expect: bright fluorescent lighting, furniture that’s tasteful yet functional, and a window overlooking one of the common areas in Talley Student Union. But if you look again, you notice all the African drums lined up along the credenza behind his desk and displayed on top of the bookcase against the wall.
This may be the office of an arts administrator, but it’s clearly also the office of a dedicated percussionist.
“I love to play lots of different kinds of percussion instruments, which is one of the reasons why I entered academia,” Holly says. “In the world of professional percussion, whatever you get hired to do first in your career is what you tend to get pegged as from then on. But I like too many different instruments and styles to allow myself to be pegged as any one thing. That’s why I love the university setting: you can play pretty much whatever you want, in any musical style you like.”
Holly brought his wide-ranging musical tastes—together with his many years of experience as a faculty member and a dean—to NC State in July when he became executive director of Arts NC State. He assumes leadership of a multipronged arts organization that comprises a performing arts series, music and dance programs, crafts classes, a theater company and a museum of art and design.
After Holly earned a Bachelor of Music from SUNY-Postdam and a Master of Music from East Carolina, his teaching career began at Western State College in Colorado, where he was head of percussion and head of jazz. Then he went to Northern Illinois University, where he taught percussion for a number of years before taking on a variety of administrative roles, first within the School of Music and then in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
“I went into administration because I disagreed with some of the directions that the university was taking at the time,” Holly recalls. “A faculty buddy of mine and I were talking about the situation, and we were saying, ‘If we were in administration …’ So we both went into administration to make things better.”
That can-do attitude paid off as Holly rose through the ranks to eventually become dean of his college.
At the same time, Holly was very active in his main professional organization, the Percussive Arts Society. After serving as a board member since the early 1990s, he served as president of the society in 2005-2006. Now, as a past president, he’s a board member for life.
“I’ve had one foot in academia and one foot in the nonprofit arts world for a long time,” he observes.
That fact is a big part of what makes Holly perfect to run an organization like Arts NC State—although he didn’t exactly see it that way at first when NC State came calling.
“I had a good situation where I was, and I wasn’t looking to leave, and I told them so,” he says. “But they kept after me, so I decided to take another look.” When Holly told his wife he’d been contacted to apply for the position at NC State, she said, “Where is Raleigh in North Carolina?”
He said, “Two hours from the beach, and three hours from the mountains.”
Her reply was quick: “When do we move?”
After doing some research on NC State, Holly became intrigued by the unique status of the arts here. “The arts at NC State are operating in a very different scenario from most campuses,” he says. “At most schools you can major or minor in the arts, and most students who aren’t doing that can’t participate in the arts. But there are a handful of schools — including NC State — where it’s flip-flopped: Here you can’t major in the arts, and anyone can participate. That’s why, at NC State, the arts are for everyone.”
Holly says NC State’s approach to the arts helps the university’s artistic programs excel beyond what many might expect from a school known for its strengths in the sciences and engineering.
“The level of the arts offerings at NC State is extraordinarily high, particularly for an institution that does not have a college of fine arts,” he says. “That’s an exceptional accomplishment. And that’s why I would encourage everyone to attend a play by University Theatre, see a concert put on by the Music Department or the Dance Program, go see what the Gregg Museum has to offer, take a class through the Crafts Center or experience the world-class guest artists we bring in through NC State Live.”
After only a few months on campus, Holly is acclimating rapidly to his new role and surroundings. “Everybody here has been hugely friendly, supportive, willing to go out of their way to help,” he says. “It’s been the most incredible environment I could have imagined. And to top it all off, I have an office in this amazing building,” he says, gesturing toward his window, which opens onto a two-story view of an atrium inside Talley.
Holly is currently engaged in what he calls his “listening tour” within Arts NC State. He’s spending time every week meeting with every staffer in the organization to learn more about them and what their dreams are, both for themselves and for Arts NC State.
“One person can never know everything, so if there’s a person out there who can teach me something, I need to hear it,” he says. “You never know when you’re going to hear that one fact, that one idea, that’s going to spur you on to the next great thing.”
When asked what his plans are for the future of Arts NC State, Holly says he isn’t ready to divulge specifics yet. “I’m still percolating ideas and figuring out which direction to go,” he says. “But we will be going somewhere. At my first teaching job, my mentor told me that in your first year on the job, you make no changes; your second year, you make a few; and in your third year, you can go for it. Well, I took that advice at first, but I don’t anymore. I was hired for a reason, and I need to fulfill that mission.”
And if Holly could sum up his mission?
“I feel very strongly that my position is one of service,” he says. “It’s a position of authority, too, and I’ll make the decisions that are needed; but ultimately I’m here to serve the community in the best way possible.”