Arts as change agent

Music scholar applies training to role in spurring arts innovation.

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. [03.10.04] — When the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute at the N.C. School of the Arts stages The Rape of Lucretia in May, past and present will meet for Margaret Mertz.

Mertz, who started playing classical piano at age five and earned master’s and doctoral degrees in music at Harvard, wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the Benjamin Britten opera.

Last July, after teaching at four colleges and universities, working for six years as chief examiner in music for the International Baccalaureate Organization, and serving for four years as academic dean at the N.C. School of the Arts, she joined the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts as acting executive director.

Her move to the institute, which supports the school with funds from the William R. Kenan Jr. Fund for the Arts, coincided with a charge by the fund to the institute to find ways to use the school’s resources to spur innovation in the arts beyond its campus.

Ideas for doing that include tapping alumni to support recent graduates, collaborating to support new leaders at performing arts groups, inviting arts writers to the school, and creating a residency program for a traditional Japanese-theater ensemble.

“I’m really enjoying this work,” says Mertz. “I feel like I learned a huge amount as dean about the nitty gritty of the school.”

A Texas native, Mertz took a heavy regimen of philosophy and math courses as part of the undergraduate program in liberal arts at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, and concentrated her graduate studies as a historical musicologist at Harvard on 20th century opera.

For the past three years, as a hobby, she has taken up African-Cuban traditional hand drumming.

And in her new role, she hopes to translate what she has learned as a student and teacher into making change happen in the arts.

“Now I can really integrate my love for the arts and my love of learning,” she says, “in propelling the Kenan Institute and the N.C. School of the Arts forward.”

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