Member Spotlight: Mehmet Dede

Posted by Mehmet Dede, Linda Lombardi, Mar 22, 2022 0 comments

The Hartt School at the University of Hartford offers conservatory-based training in music, dance, and theater that moves beyond conservative traditions. Assistant Professor of Music and Performing Arts Management Mehmet Dede is an internationally recognized award-winning music curator and festival producer with 20 years of experience in the culture space. In addition to his work at The Hartt School, he is also the Programming Director of downtown New York City music venue Drom.

You’ve collaborated with performing arts institutions from Lincoln Center to the Kennedy Center and program your own live music venue. What draws you to teaching? 

Smiling person wearing dark gray-brown blazer, blue and brown checked button-down shirt, tie, standing with hands in pockets.
Mehmet Dede, photo by Ilya Popenko.

My two decades of work as curator and entrepreneur have taught me a powerful life lesson that I apply to my practice as an educator: To stay curious myself and to teach curiosity to my students. I love sharing what I know with others who are equally curious about music, the arts, culture, business, and how they all intersect. Whether college age students or lifelong learners like myself, I believe we have much to learn from each other. Philosopher and educator John Dewey said, “Education is a social process. [It] is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” I truly believe we learn best when we teach others. My educator path started simply with wanting to learn more. 

There is a direct line that can be drawn from a curator to a teacher. When creating the Silk Road Ensemble, Yo-Yo Ma said, “We were trying to be curators of culture, and if our work didn’t actually change people’s ways of thinking, there wasn’t a real reason to do it. So we had to be educators.” To create physical space for a shared experience has always been my passion. I was already doing this by being an advocate of musicians and a curator of the live experience in their various forms. Now I am doing it as a teacher of this craft to the next generation.

You have been involved with Drom from the very early days. Now celebrating its 15th year, the venue has been referred to as “New York’s premier venue for world music” by The Wall Street Journal. How did you decide to focus on global music and artists as part of the club’s mission? 

Before Drom, my creative collaborator and I launched various music festivals, tours, and concert series with partner institutes like SummerStage and Lincoln Center. We were essentially independent art presenters and promoters utilizing other people’s venues and spaces. The need for a physical space we can call home really came out of the many shows we were producing. Our motto is #DromIsHome. We didn’t focus on global sounds per se; rather, we naturally gravitated towards those sounds because of our backgrounds. The name Drom, from the word dromas, or road in Greek, marks our personal journeys as immigrants but also signifies the musical journey of sound from creation to live performance, from private quarters to public spaces. 

Through Drom and the NY Gypsy Festival, which I co-founded in 2005, we created a platform for audiences to discover and access music and culture that truly transcends geography. As New York City turned into a new type of global city in the 21st century, we were there along the way. The National Endowment for the Arts and Trust for Mutual Understanding, among others, provided grants and institutional support for our programs. Just last month Drom was awarded with the Small Venues Grant by the Live Music Society. 

You wrote an op-ed for Rolling Stone magazine about the plight of indie music venues and artists during the pandemic. In it you specifically mention the need to work together as a community. How has the pandemic impacted live music?

Music and the arts are collaborative disciplines; they do not exist in silos. They trigger deeper conversations about life, truth, love, beauty, and other subjects that speak to our human condition and society. As a performance curator my goal is to open up paths of inquiry and self-reflection. This leads to long-lasting, meaningful relationships on which we can build communities at the local level. This is why independent venues are so critical to the music ecosystem. 

If the last two years taught us anything, it is that we can no longer rely on older means and methods to communicate and disseminate art. We are adjusting to the constantly changing reality of the new performing arts—canceled tours, silent stages, artistic work performed at home and transmitted over livestream technology. That said, the pandemic brought out the resilience of the arts, and the social impact of the work has anything but diminished. Artists continued to create and found innovative ways to channel their creativity and amplify their stories.

Thanks to the agility of running a small business, we responded quickly to the challenges. The creation of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) is probably one of the high points in an otherwise quiet and prolonged period of next-to-no-shows. NIVA came together at the onset of the pandemic and successfully advocated for the passage of the bipartisan Save Our Stages act. The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant gave businesses like Drom a lifeline to continue operations. It is also the biggest arts funding program in U.S. history with a budget of $16 billion. I personally served on the NIVA Reopening Task Force, which produced the Venue Reopening Resources Guide for its 3,000+ members.

Band performing on stage under rose-tinted stage lights.
Bernie Worrell performing on stage at Drom, photo by Serdar Ilhan.

Drom is producing live shows again. Why is the communal experience of live music so essential right now?

Community-building is at the core of my professional work. There is inexplicable joy in bringing together listeners with the people who make it. Music helps us explore ourselves and understand one another better, even when it is in a different language. 

Though there were no public shows at Drom, we pivoted to alternative means of presenting music and producing content for our community online during the pandemic. For example, we curated the Drom World Fest, a six-day online music marathon with 30 performers from around the world. But, of course, nothing compares to the in-person live music experience. We are, after all, living in the experience economy! 

One of the many goals with my curatorial practice is to help artists grow their audience. A few years ago, I presented an artist from India, who shared on stage that he had traveled 36 hours from his country, half-a-world away, just to be able to perform for an hour to a small audience. The socioeconomic and mental impacts of the pandemic have not been even fully documented yet. But we know today, societies need inclusive music and arts programs more than before. As curators, event producers, and venue operators, I am certain our creative and adaptive spirit will continue to guide our work for years to come.

Americans for the Arts Membership

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