He wants to make North Carolina an ‘epicenter’ for the arts

Jackson Cooper, executive director of Chamber Music Raleigh, conducts the Durham Symphony during a rehearsal.
Jackson Cooper, executive director of Chamber Music Raleigh, conducts the Durham Symphony during a rehearsal. Courtesy of Jackson Cooper

When Jackson Cooper signed on as executive director of the struggling Chamber Music Raleigh in 2016, he knew he was in for a challenge. But his leadership and ideas, including a partnership with the North Carolina Museum of Art to host concerts, have helped boost the group, which has been bringing in musicians and showcasing local artists since 1941. Cooper, 23, who was on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list in 2016, shares his strategies and his passion for instrumental music.

Q: You’ve said Chamber Music Raleigh, a nonprofit, was in debt and interest was waning when you came on board. What was going on?

A: We had an exodus of board members, and the executive director just up and left the organization. That scared a lot of people, and it didn’t look good for us. We lost the support of donors and audience members.

Q: How did you improve the situation?

A: It was a quick turnaround, but I went straight for programming and mission-driven fundraising – really getting people behind supporting the organization and talking about what the music means to them. We’re financially stable now and have the support of a lot of people in the community.

Q: Which artists have you brought in?

A: We hosted the Juilliard String Quartet and also a tribute to Leonard Bernstein and his son, Alexander. We invited pianist Lara Downes and musician Rhiannon Giddens to record a track for Lara’s album that’s coming out on Sony.

Bringing artists here doesn’t just raise the profile for us, it presents North Carolina as an epicenter for these great projects. You don’t have to go to New York or Los Angeles.

Q: How long have you been working in the arts?

A: I grew up in Raleigh and in theater; I’ve been working in arts administration since I was 14, putting together sheet music for the NC Theatre. There’s always something new to find or listen to. I just love that. It’s made me really appreciate life. The arts allow us to understand each other’s experiences a little bit better.

Q: What’s one thing you require of performers you invite to Chamber Music Raleigh?

A: They must talk about their work with the audience; it adds a personal element to the experience for the audience.

It’s our job as administrators to deliver meaningful programming that’s honest and moves people in some way, whether it disturbs them, challenges them or moves them to tears.

Q: In college at UNC-Greensboro, you created a multi-disciplinary degree in arts administration for yourself. Why was that important to you?

A: It wasn’t out of rebellion; I wanted to take control of my education and make it my own. I went to the theater department and said, “I want do this” and they said, “It’s never been done so you can’t do it.” And I said, “Well, I’m still going to do it.” I wanted that experience of how to work behind the scenes in administration but also what it’s like to perform as a musician and actor.

I did a lot of theater, and I worked as a film critic for the Greensboro News & Record and Winston-Salem Journal. I still direct theater and conduct music. And currently I’m working on two books about film.

Q: What’s your goal for Chamber Music Raleigh moving forward?

A: I want more collaboration with community partners, connecting audiences from different walks of life, whether that’s dance collaboration or just partnering with an advocacy group to put fliers out at intermission. I want to show people that music and the arts are accessible. It doesn’t depend on education, age or income level to enjoy.

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Jackson Cooper – Tar Heel of the Week

Born: May 5, 1994, in Manassas, Va.

Raised: Manassas and Raleigh

Residence: Raleigh

Education: UNC-Greensboro

Organization: Chamber Music Raleigh (chambermusicraleigh.org)

Inspiration: His parents. “They said, ‘If you are really passionate about something, go do it, and you’ll find a way to make a living from it eventually.’