(Dr. Cullen Strawn is Old Dominion University’s Executive Director for the Arts)

By Jeff Maisey

If you’ve visited the campus of Old Dominion University recently, you’ve likely noticed quite an upgrade to its performing and visual arts buildings, whether the Goode Theater, Barry Arts Building or the Gordon Art Galleries.

I imagine any high school student touring the facilities in search of higher education in the field of performing or visual art would be impressed.

Beyond the amenities, the school has also enhanced its education programs as well as its public performances.

I recently caught up with Dr. Cullen Strawn, Old Dominion University’s Executive Director for the Arts, to learn more about ODU’s growing arts efforts. Strawn holds a BMus in performance from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as well as MA and PhD degrees in folklore and ethnomusicology from Indiana University, Bloomington. Hailing from an extended family of musicians, he has recorded and performed on a wide range of instruments including donso ngoni, kora, soku, jenbe, and balani (West African strings and percussion), fretless banjo and bass, fiddle, saxophones, and guitars in traditional and popular genres.

Cullen has won major fellowships and grants including the Fulbright-IIE and Fulbright-Hays for ethnographic field research on aspects of arts and culture in the United States and West Africa. In addition to working as an audio technician, software developer, and managing editor of the Ethnographic Video for Instruction and Analysis (EVIA) Digital Archive, he has served as curator at the Musical Instrument Museum and consulted for major arts and educational organizations including Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Endowment for the Arts. At Old Dominion University, Cullen oversees public-facing arts initiatives spanning the arts.

Here’s our interview.

How has ODU sought to enhance both its performing and visual arts education programs as well as offering students and the public an experience rich in culture through concert performances by touring musicians? 

Arts@ODU is based in the College of Arts and Letters and has grown to the point of producing nearly 200 public arts events each year. The programming is a mix of professional and student work across fields of music, dance, theatre, film, visual arts, and creative writing.

Regarding concerts by touring musicians, the F. Ludwig Diehn Concert Series takes place in Chandler Recital Hall, which is an intimate and acoustically wonderful space where the public can experience top-caliber artists performing and teaching. This fall, Indian sarod master Amjad Ali Khan as well as the Jasper String Quartet and trumpeter Brandon Ridenour appear, with three additional artists visiting in the spring.

This Diehn Series is an example of an enhancement that benefits both the public and students. It is funded by an endowment established at the Hampton Roads Community Foundation and originally made possible by a gift from composer F. Ludwig Diehn. The funding keeps ticket prices very low for public concerts and also creates educational opportunities for students who receive scholarships and are critiqued by the visiting artists in public master classes and workshops.


Can you share with us the recent and ongoing effort to build on-campus arts performance and exhibit space?

In the fall of 2015 we celebrated new educational and performance spaces on Monarch Way—the Barry Arts Building, Hixon Art Studio, and Brock Commons amphitheater. These followed the construction of the Goode Theatre, a black box and film soundstage facility beside the Gordon Art Galleries and one block from University Theatre, the proscenium space facing Hampton Boulevard.

The Diehn Center for the Performing Arts on West 49th Street also saw a recent expansion resulting in a recording studio, percussion studio, choir room, computer lab, dance studio facilities, and other educational spaces. Currently under construction at the corner of Hampton Boulevard and West 43rd Street is the Barry Art Museum, which will be a 24,000-square-foot space featuring the collection of Richard and Carolyn Barry as well as ongoing changing exhibitions. The Museum is slated to open during the fall of 2018.

ODU is so fortunate to have the support of local donors who value arts both within the University setting and throughout Norfolk and Hampton Roads. Their generosity along with the vision and efforts of President Broderick and other key leaders have resulted in these new facilities, which totaled upward of $80 million in construction alone. We look forward to additional spaces and programming opportunities in the future.


Have these efforts expanded enrollment and funding for ODU’s arts programs? 

The University has stated that it aims to be the recognized leader for the regional arts community. Supporting this goal is the construction of performance and exhibit spaces, and related goals include cultivating funding for public and educational programming, and increasing engagement with local communities. We will work toward integrating all of the arts by creating programming such as street festivals and outdoor performances in the new arts village, all while seeking expanded enrollments and funding.


The Madrigal Banquet is a unique experience. Can you tell us how this event originated and its current function mixing period music, food and drink?

The Madrigal Banquets are based on a traditional form of dinner theatre that celebrates winter holidays with Renaissance-themed music, food, and histories. ODU’s interpretations center on a particular region or country each year. The dinner includes several courses that are introduced by songs and separated by a comedic play. Students in the ODU Madrigal Singers ensemble dress in period costumes and perform, and instrumental music is played by the Collegium Musicum and the Sacbut Ensemble, which are two ODU groups focusing on early European music.

This year’s banquets are unusual in that they are themed around the time of the American Revolutionary War. The music and dialogue will reference that history while the performers appear in their European Renaissance attire. This is the 43rd year of the Madrigal Banquets, and the ODU Madrigal Singers ensemble actually dates back to the early 1950s. The ensemble and banquets have enjoyed different leadership through the years and still offer students opportunities to expand their repertoire of Renaissance and Baroque Music.


This year’s Literary Festival (October 1-5) is celebrating its 40th season. What are some of this year’s highlights and how do they complement the “Lust for Life” theme? 

Highlights of the Festival this year include the President’s Lecture Series speaker Roz Chast and British Book Award winner Garth Greenwell. These are authors who bring a lust for the experience of living—loving, laughing, escaping, fighting, screaming, and even dying are within their scope. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Chast gives readers a sense of her fierce love and dark humor as she becomes her parents’ caregiver. Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You has been called “a searching and compassionate meditation on the slipperiness of desire.” Other internationally renowned authors will appear in the Festival, which includes nearly 20 readings and events from October 1st through 5th. We bring amazing people to read alongside our own amazing people, including two National Book Award Finalists on the faculty at ODU.

Literary Festival events are open to the community and free, with the exception of one ticketed theatre performance—an adaptation of the lusty “Lysistrata” by playwright Ellen McLaughlin.


“The Art of Trains” and the painting of Susana Coffey are your major visual art exhibits for fall. How did these two ideas come together? 

The subject of trains is one that resonates with people the world over. Countless songs and stories have been composed about trains in the human experience, and the visual arts too offer a wealth of train-themed works. Norfolk is home to Norfolk Southern Corporation, whose retired Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, David Goode, is a collector of such art. David and his wife, Susan, are also ardent supporters of the arts and have given generously to ODU, among other arts organizations.

“The Art of Trains” explores the influence of the train, especially the steam engine, on the growth of America as a nation with 50 paintings, prints, and photographs primarily from the Goodes’ collection, and 13 additional selections from the collections of their daughter Christina Goode, Jay Althouse and Sally Albrecht, photographer Matthew Malkiewicz, and ODU’s Baron and Ellin Gordon Collection of Self-Taught Art.

Complementing the theme of trains is the exhibition “Transit: The Art of Revelation in the Paintings of Susanna Coffey.” Trains transport us from one place to another, and this show moves us through life stages by working with the idea that personhood is fluid and opposed to the singular and fixed. It features a book of woodcut prints and 23 paintings including Coffey’s self-portraits, which have won great favor with critics for more than 30 years.

A free, joint reception for these two exhibitions will be held at the Gordon Galleries on October 20th from 7 to 9 p.m., and we encourage the public to take part.


Student dance and musical recitals, theater performance and the senior art show are important highlights of their education experience. What feedback do you get from students regarding their “showtime” experience? 

The feedback that I receive reflects transformative experiences. Either students are excited about reaching a new plane in their work or they are experiencing processes of presenting themselves and their work to the general public (not merely to their peers) for the first time.

My favorite bits of feedback tend to be ones that involve moments of crossing boundaries or bridging gaps. It is possible as a student to be so into one’s own studies that the connections between and among arts do not seem apparent. But students can have revelations by experiencing the abilities of others in a different discipline, and here I think of a comment that I received last spring from a student in the M.F.A. Creative Writing Program. She relayed a beautiful discovery of continuity between music, language, sound, and meaning. I will hold back her name here but share her words as I received them:

“I’ve grown up listening to music. When I was younger, my mother put me in cello lessons, and as I got older I played piano. Music, while I enjoyed it, remained a chore; 30 minutes of practice to accomplish every day. It was an anathema to me. Something I delighted in, but still, after years of association I could not understand. After attending the Eighth Blackbird concert, I was struck by narrative flow inherent in the music. The way in which each instrument would play with the same melody line instilling its own rhythm, tone, and voice; each repetition becoming more colorful and graphic. As a poet, I found this way of music’s desire for connection; to be heard and understood by the listener. That the process of living is external. As a poet, I crave truth, and most often I find that truth in being heard. Being understood is a sincere human longing, and in this longing we reach out despite all the fear that we are alone. How could I have gone this long creating distinctions between music and writing? Listening to Eighth Blackbird not only helped me in my own poetry connecting how sound relates meaning, but it helped validate why we even make art.”


How can the local community be more supportive of student arts at Old Dominion University? 

I cannot overemphasize the value that we place on the presence of local community members at arts events, and I encourage folks to visit odu.edu/arts frequently to stay updated on the wealth of programming that we have. Universities should contribute to the arts and cultures of their regions and help create quality of life. We want to enrich and foster community, and we need the participation of a diverse range of people in order to achieve this. If guests are moved to support the arts beyond attending events and enrolling in courses, our website also has information on exploring opportunities for philanthropy. Still other forms of support are limitless, and we love to be in such conversations.


Can you discuss the Arts & Entrepreneurial program?  

Our new Certificate in Arts and Entrepreneurship is based in the Institute for the Humanities, and it is designed to help students channel their creativity into sustainable careers in the arts world. The 2016 Survey on Artist Professional Development Needs by the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship found that a large number of artists want to complement their creativity with business and communication skills that can help them with sustainability and innovation in their professions.

We explore creating sustainable business plans, grant writing, fundraising, social media marketing, cultivating and engaging stakeholders, arts administration, and social entrepreneurial and design thinking skills. We pair these skills with tools drawn from studying the social, political, economic, and cultural value of arts-based innovations, and offer courses to students interested in studio or the performing arts.

The certificate ends with a capstone project in which students develop a proposal for an arts-based program. They then present their proposal to stakeholders in Hampton Roads for critique, feedback, and possible implementation. This is open to any graduate student enrolled in any graduate program at ODU. Students not seeking a degree can also earn it as a standalone certificate, and in some instances high-performing juniors and seniors can enroll.