This month the EXCEL Lab is THRILLED to be partnering with the Eastman School of Music’s Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research on a three-part online symposium entitled Disruption Action Change! This week our featured guests, Ashleigh Gordon (Castle of Our Skins) and Margaret Lioi (Chamber Music America), discuss their experiences disrupting traditional organizational practice! Register below to see their live Q&A this Thursday, March 11th at 4:30pm EDT.

Register Here


Meet Ashleigh Gordon

​Ashleigh is co-founder, Artistic/Executive Director and violist of Castle of our Skins, a Boston-based concert and educational series devoted to celebrating Black Artistry through music. In recognition of her work, she has presented at IDEAS UMass Boston Conference and 180 Degrees Festival in Bulgaria; has been featured in the International Musician and Improper Bostonian magazines as well as the Boston Globe; and was awarded the 2016 Charles Walton Diversity Advocate Award from the American Federation of Musicians. Described as a “charismatic and captivating performer,” Ashleigh Gordon has recorded with Switzerland’s Ensemble Proton and Germany’s Ensemble Modern; performed with Grammy-award winning BMOP and Grammy-nominated A Far Cry string ensemble; and appeared at the prestigious BBC Proms Festival with the Chineke! Orchestra. 


From Ashleigh

As a classically-trained musician, I fought for years against the external pressure to pursue an orchestral career when I knew the intimacy of chamber music spoke deeper to my heart. As an educator, I wrestled with how I could effectively reach a child in a classroom setting when I found one-on-one, mentor-mentee relationships more natural and impactful. I knew I was creative and found excitement bringing a daydream into a tangible reality. I enjoyed research, history, storytelling, having autonomy in my work, and connecting with my cultural roots. I grew to love my identity as a Black woman violist.

I share these as realizations about myself that took years to fully own and whole-heartedly embrace. These understandings – which now serve as the bedrock for how I authentically engage with the world – shape my work as Artistic and Executive Director of Castle of our Skins, a Boston-based concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry through music. 

For the past eight years (and counting), I have presented the works of African diasporic composers alongside spoken word, dance, visual arts and other mediums, flooding classrooms and concert stages with centuries worth of artistic excellence. Through performances, residencies, commissions, workshops, and more, I have made it a common mission for both myself and the organization to showcase a wide breadth of Black artistry that spans genres, generations, genders, and geographies. I have done – and continue to do – this from a place of authenticity, genuine passion, and deep-seeded purpose. Representation continues to be foundational in my work. Black voices continue to be centered on stage and off. Cultural exploration remains a constant reason to both celebrate and normalize diversity and is not conditional to an anniversary, date on a calendar, response to yet another example of injustice, or matter of convenience.

To encourage artists/arts organizations to join in this continual and intentional centering of the underrepresented, I would like to offer three simple thoughts:

  1. Know your motivations; name your intentions: As this is not the work of a 100-meter dash but a marathon spanning generations, it is crucial to know what is driving your work and why. Keep those answers top of mind all the time as honesty and authenticity are the fuel that will drive your well-meaning efforts beyond the limits of pure passion and a reaction to the times. 
  2. Strength is in community: Collaboration not competition will make for more sustainable efforts as strength lies in numbers. Collectively, we have the ability to challenge, push, support, and inspire a movement that lasts beyond a headline or topical trend.
  3. Share resources: Knowledge is power as we know and have heard countless times. Sharing what you know, have learned, have tried and failed, and tried and succeeded is essential to our collective understanding in how we can build a healthy arts ecosystem devoid of the inequities that continue to plague it (and us).

As said by writer, choreographer, activist and author Andrew Simonet in his Making Your Life as an Artist: “Culture needs you to do it (your art) and do it well.” We each, as cultural influencers, have an awesome and unique responsibility to fulfill. At the same time, it is imperative that we each remain steadfast and truly elevate the marginalized in all of our work if we are to disrupt a centuries old system of inequity. Our collective and creative future quite literally depends on it.

Meet Margaret Lioi

Margaret M. Lioi has been Chamber Music America’s Chief Executive Officer since 2000, serving as the longest-tenured executive in CMA’s 43-year history. During this time, CMA incorporated jazz into its small ensemble portfolio, increased its grant-making to more than $1.3 million annually, established May as National Chamber Music Month, and ratified the organization’s Commitment to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, solidifying its dedication to equitable practices in every area of its operations.

She holds a Masters in Piano Performance from New England Conservatory and an MBA in Arts Management from Binghamton University/SUNY. Prior to CMA, Lioi was the Director of Development at Spoleto U.S.A., Executive Director of The Eleanor Naylor Dana Charitable Trust, and Senior Director of External Affairs at The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. She serves on the Advisory Board of The Sphinx Organization, is a member of the Board of The Performing Arts Alliance, and is an adjunct faculty member in the MA in Arts Management Entrepreneurship program at The New School.


From Margaret: A Reflection on Disruption

I do not think of myself as a disrupter. For women of my background and generation, disrupting anything does not carry with it a positive connotation. Women are selfless peacemakers who bring people together, not break things apart—or so say the influential voices of my past. 

When I arrived at Chamber Music America in 2000, CMA had accepted an initial grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to fund new works for composer-led jazz ensembles. This made complete sense to me; it fit perfectly into CMA’s definition of chamber music: music for small ensembles between two and ten musicians, one musician per part, generally without a conductor. But I wasn’t prepared for the pushback, negative emails, and overall controversy the program created.

To an already marginalized field that was perennially under-resourced, it was a signal that funding would be siphoned from our classical grant programs and redirected to what was perceived as an interloping discipline. It didn’t matter that Doris Duke’s Will mandated that the Foundation’s funding in music be dedicated to jazz. None of CMA’s funding for its classical programs was in jeopardy because of the jazz grants, and further, the Duke Foundation would not fund classical music as it was not one of Doris Duke’s interests.

Unbelievably, this debate continued for nearly a decade. I often reflect on these early years in my tenure and wonder what I could have/should have done to make the inclusion of jazz into CMA’s portfolio easier for everyone to accept. Some CMA members were so outraged at the idea that jazz was becoming a permanent part of CMA that they signed a petition against its inclusion. I remember that it arrived in my In Box the evening before our national conference and took center stage as we attempted to finalize our strategic plan in 2007. 

The organization, the Board, and I came under fire for “abandoning CMA’s core constituency,” “forcing jazz down presenters’ throats,” and “disregarding CMA’s founding mission”—all untrue. Despite the negative reactions, we persevered. Our jazz funding and number of programs continued to grow. Jazz artists began to see Chamber Music America as a home, and most rewarding of all, jazz and classical musicians began to learn from each other and collaborate on artistic projects. Was this disruption or bringing people together? One of my colleagues often reminds me that more than one thing can be true at the same time. 

In my first ten years at CMA I learned to listen. The jazz musicians were happy to have a new funding source but wanted to make sure that CMA was not inviting them into the classical construct and expecting them to conform. And it was equally important to recognize and understand the anxieties and misgivings of our classical constituents, who felt that resources were being taken away from them.

This journey, arduous and exhausting, will never come to a complete conclusion, but the resulting jazz programs and participation continue to contribute to CMA’s success as a vibrant and relevant 21st-Century organization.

It was with the successes and missteps of this experience that we approached our racial equity work. We continue to disrupt and bring people together.

Want to hear more?

Join us this Thursday, March 11th from 4:30-6:00pm EDT via Zoom for a Q&A with Ashleigh and Margaret. They will delve into their posts in greater depth and explore questions like, “How do we design and support organizations that connect genuinely with their communities, enabling audiences to be ‘co-creators’?” We hope to see you there as we expand this conversation around disrupting traditional organizational practice and taking risks to advance ADEI/anti-racism policies in the arts. Participation is free, but registration is required via the link below.

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