Today the EXCEL Log is featuring an EXCEL Highlight interview with the amazing Dr. Antonio C Cuyler! This interview took place on 9/30/2020 the day before the release of his first book. Make sure to check it out!
I log onto the zoom call nervously checking and double checking my interview questions, cyclically wondering if I compiled enough questions or did enough research, and then conversely wondering if I have too many questions and did too much research? What if I give off creepy stalker vibes, what if he — Dr. Cuyler logs on (Thank god).
A dapper Black man with a well trimmed beard, Dr. Cuyler has a friendly face, Black Panther artwork on his wall, and a slight southern drawl when he introduces himself that immediately puts me at ease (I realize Northern Virginia is only “technically” in the south but let me have this y’all). I try to rush through the pleasantries because I’m now convinced I do in fact have too many questions for the hour interview, but as a true southern gentleman he refuses to let me get to business before we’ve chatted about the weather, shared our life stories, and compared recipes on how to best burn down White supremacy.
Samantha Williams: Yeah, so I’m right in the middle of a quarter life crisis, I just earned my masters degree in opera performance, and also just realized that I kind of might maybe hate opera right now. So yeah, it’s fine. Everything’s fine. We’re just taking a break, it’s not an official separation but I’m definitely seeing other genres. I’m currently really pursuing my love of arts activism and exploring arts administration and trying to figure out what in the world I’m going to do with all these degrees.
Dr. Antonio Cuyler: Oh, that’s so beautiful. Because if you think about it, you’re liberated, in a way where you’re unencumbered by all of the conventions and all of the intricacies, and the idiosyncrasies of those conventions. You have the freedom to envision. You’re creating the space for yourself to really kind of sit back and go “What do I really want to do?”
SW: Absolutely. I mean, you just sold that as a lot more positive, great, and romantic than it could also be described [laughter] but I love that description, I’ll try to stay in that mindset.
AC: I think you should! Because, I think that’s what led me to where I am now because I studied voice at the undergraduate level. And so I had essentially about eight years of intensive voice studying. Before I came to the place that you’re at and I asked myself the same question. So you have these degrees in music, what do you want to do with them?
Dr. Cuyler surely made the most of his degrees. While he is “The first Black man to earn a Ph.D. in Arts Administration,” and “the first Black man to earn promotion and tenure in his discipline,” Dr. Cuyler is less concerned with achieving these types of superlatives. He cares more about the impact he has on enhancing and increasing the educational attainment of arts managers, especially those of color. He has published numerous articles researching Arts Administration Education, and Creative Justice Issues in the Cultural Sector. He earned his BM in Voice and Foreign Languages at Stetson University, his MA in Arts administration, and his Ph.D. in Arts Education/ Arts Administration from Florida State University, and is a Visiting Professor of Arts Management at UM this year.
SW: I noticed your black panther comic in the background!!
AC: Have you seen it?
AC: One of my favorite scenes in the movie is that scene where they’re in the museum, I thought it was so poignant. I believe that a recent report said that 90 to 95% of SubSaharan Africa’s cultural objects exist outside of the continent of Africa. And we have these European countries that say we’ll let you borrow your own things back, right? That’s where the importance of cultural capital and holding on to the cultural capital comes in.
For Black people, our cultural capital is the one thing that has always been there… and we have not always used our cultural capital in the same ways that the people who have exploited us for our cultural capital did. I would like to see us become more aware of our cultural capital, and to use our cultural capital in ways that dismantle White supremacy and challenge White supremacy but also give us the agency that we need to not internalize racial oppression.
SW: Do you have examples of what that might look like in an ideal world?
AC: Yeah, let’s say that an artist/ arts administrator like yourself, decided that they were going to create a collective of Black artists who focused on creating Black stories for opera. And I mean more than just those stories that basically turn our trauma into porn like police brutality. Yes, it is a very important thing, but I don’t know that I need to see another opera about police brutality. What about those common stories that show Black joy, Black love? You know, the ways in which we know that Black people exist that the rest of the population doesn’t understand.That would be a way of taking the cultural capital, being very protective of the cultural capital, but also sharing the cultural capital in ways that challenge those stories about our humanity and the quality of our humanity.
I love stories of artists like Prince, Michael Jackson, and even Millie Jackson.. where they said, this is my stuff.. And I’m going to participate in the conversation about how you use my stuff or don’t use my stuff, so that I maintain control of my stuff.
The story of Queen NZynga from Angola would make a really good opera. I was just telling my friend about this and how she participated in the slave trade. There came a point where she was negotiating with the Portuguese to limit the amount of slaves that they were taking from Angola and the Portuguese would not even provide her a seat to sit at the table. So she commanded one of her slaves to basically like get on their knees, and that slave basically served as a chair for her, to show them that you want something from me.
And the reason why I think that’s important is because we’ve seen the results of what happens when cultural objects of significant cultural value and import are taken and looted and pillaged and held in a place where they are not from.
SW: What drew you to want to be an educator in arts administration instead of going directly into arts administration yourself?
AC: At the time there were no full-time Black male faculty teaching arts administration in the country. I thought this would be a good way to kill two birds with one stone. I could teach students who look like me and other students, and help inform the way they think about arts administration.
SW: You’ve done a fair amount or research studying executive opera managers of color
AC: Yes it was the topic of my dissertation. Comparing the experiences of my BIPOC students who were trying to pursue careers and opera management with the white cisgender gay male students that I also taught.
You have to think about your proximity to power. And that’s another thing– intersectional identities! Think about it, if you had no privilege at all, like if you were gender non-conforming, trans, of color, poor, differently-abled… That’s the story that should be told in opera. The story of that person. Because we don’t know a lot about that person’s intersectional lived experiences. And the continued life of the art form is dependent upon the telling of new stories. New relevant stories to people’s lives.
SW: Ok so then why opera? It seems like much of opera’s appeal is its elitism. There is art that’s interested in being relevant and provocative, but it’s in other genres.
AC: So, you know, my gut reaction to your question is why not opera? And I say that because this is the way opera started. I think opera became what you just described in its transportation from Europe to the United States. To make opera fit within the U.S. cultural context we projected all of these ideas of elitism and who opera was for. Opera has always had the potential to be relevant to all people, but the gatekeepers are the ones who had these ideas about conventions and purism. If you were to go to France, Germany, or Italy they are pushing boundaries and making relevant art…
SW: Why do you think there’s something so redeemable about opera that it warrants you trying to change the system from within instead of going to a more inclusive art form?
AC: Those of us who have had that experience of being transported–of transcending ourselves, we know what the art form can do for people. So why in the world would you want to stop other people from experiencing that?
To be able to exclude and to hoard an experience, just for yourself and people like you is a form of White Supremacy. And so I’d like to see opera get to a point where it is actively pursuing creative justice as a form of fighting. You know, the past means of marginalization, subjugation, and oppression that it put on people kept them from being able to contribute as much creativity to the lifespan of the art form as possible.
SW: Who’s your favorite composer?
AC: I am probably the biggest fan of Puccini. Puccini wrote about stories that were relevant, like verismo opera– Hello??– is all about realism. And so we need to take that model and apply it to today
SW: In your article Steadfastly White, Female, Hetero and Able-Bodied, you said that the responsibility for any structural DEI changes and improvements will fall to a highly conscientious and overworked academic labor force and not to the institution’s themselves. That seems so problematic and sad. Why do you think that?
AC: The way colleges and universities are currently responding to the global racial reckoning is very chaotic. It’s like a bunch of chickens running around with their heads cut off. And there’s not a lot of mindful strategic action. There’s lots of discourse, lots of conversations but we as historically marginalized and oppressed groups are exhausted of discourses and conversations. Particularly because if our student populations are among the most privileged in societies across the world, who and what will compel them to care about Creative Justice, Access, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Interculturalism, and trans culturalism?
Faculty who personally identify with a marginalized identity are more likely to teach about diversity issues in arts administration. That was a major finding of a study I did on arts administration faculty in the US in 2017. Conversely, if faculty didn’t identify with a marginalized identity they were less likely to teach about diversity issues. I’ve heard some faculty say “I wasn’t taught how to teach an anti-racism curriculum, I’m not qualified to do that.” To say that, and particularly if you are an educator is not an excuse not to do something. You’re supposed to be modeling lifelong learning! The curriculum you receive is not an excuse to not do something.
SW: Right, pick up a book like you do for other topics you don’t know enough about. That’s what you’re supposed to do in academia, research right?
AC: Some people think that a solution to students wanting a more diverse and inclusive curriculum is to develop something like an African American composers course. That’s an option. But, why can’t you integrate African American composers into the music history course or the music theory course? Why can’t you take the whole construct or the whole concept of music history or music theory and say: who are the people who have contributed to the discussion, the scholarly and the academic discourse on music history and music theory? Why can’t we reimagine how we can have everyone participating in this conversation because there are people of diverse backgrounds who contributed to the development of music history and music theory.
And if they’re not, then I think that students need to start turning towards activism, and pushing them because, again, students are, you know, consumers of education. So, students have a lot more power than I think they know they have to compel change.
So students we have our marching orders. Make some good trouble, watch Black Panther, read Dr. Cuyler’s new book, and always remember Wakanda Forever.