by Mark McGowan
Rich Holly’s road to the deanship of the NIU College of Visual and Performing Arts truly began decades ago with a television variety show.
The 6-year-old boy had scampered down the stairs into the living room of his family’s Long Island home to find his mother and father watching a musical performance on TV.
“I just stopped,” Holly said. “The camera zoomed in on the drummer. They stayed on the drummer for 15 seconds. I turned around and said to my parents, ‘I want to play drums.’ ”
His father brought home a pair of drum sticks the next afternoon.
Holly beat the bottoms of upturned plastic garbage cans. He thumped the vinyl seats of dining room chairs. Within a few years, he owned a snare drum; a year later, he acquired a set of drums and a standing gig with a local Nassau County garage band. Soon he began to play in school and community youth orchestras and, thanks to a chance meeting with a guest conductor, professional ones.
Meanwhile, his mother – she worked as an administrative assistant to a publisher at McGraw-Hill – instilled in him the importance of budgeting and organization. At only age 12, Holly booked shows and handled contracts for his fledgling rock ’n’ roll band.
Pending approval from the Board of Trustees, Holly will continue to combine his talents for the arts and business as the new dean of the NIU College of Visual and Performing Arts.
“As a faculty member and administrator in the college for the past 26 years, I’ve always felt that when I arrive at my office that it’s not just my place of work but rather my second home. The people at NIU have always been warm, kind, helpful and motivated to excel,” Holly said.
“To now serve in a position of leadership at the dean’s level means I get to work even more closely with many of these exceptional people on a regular basis, which makes being a member of the NIU family even more wonderful for me,” he added. “I am convinced NIU is on a very clear and strong path to strengthen our reputation, enrich the lives of our students and make lasting improvements to the communities and region we serve.”
University administrators call Holly a proven leader. He has served as acting dean since last year and associate dean since 2001.
“Rich knows the strong reputation of our arts programs because he helped to build that reputation. He has a tremendous vision for how it will continue, and he holds great enthusiasm for the path it will take,” NIU President John Peters said. “I’m proud of his selection and excited for the college’s future.”
“The fact that Rich emerged as a top candidate in a national search shows that he is a respected academic leader,” Provost Raymond Alden said, “and that he has an excitement about the university and a commitment to the university that we like to see in all of our leaders.”
Holly’s favorite goal as dean is to encourage a greater excursion of the arts outside of the college’s three buildings.
He envisions fine arts students taking their canvases onto campus or into downtown DeKalb to paint. He imagines theater students acting out a scene on a West Lincoln Highway corner, or music students playing recitals in storefront windows.
“As artists, no matter what field we’re in, we want people to appreciate what we do. I think it’s important for us to take it to them,” he said. “This is a way to engage the community and to get the community and the university to engage together.”
Holly also hopes to transfer his mother’s lessons on business operations to students who might see themselves strictly as teachers and performers. He calls it “the advocacy component” of their education.
Leaders of the public school districts where as many as 30 percent of the college’s students will work after graduation often target the arts first when the budget scissors come out, he said. Other alums who find jobs at non-profit arts agencies “need to know how to make their case” to benefactors.
“The No. 1 challenge in the arts is always funding,” Holly said. “It’s important to me that we start teaching our students more about entrepreneurship and how to speak eloquently and passionately about the role the arts play in economic development and the quality of life. They need to be ready to defend their programs.”
For his part, Holly has “rather liked” the last nine months of development work. He will accelerate that endeavor now that his position is permanent.
NIU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts packs a punch with potential patrons, he said, pointing to the quality of the faculty and students. The college has been fortunate to hire faculty who are good artists and good citizens.
“I have been honored, humbled and blessed to be a guest artist on at least 100 other campuses, and I have yet to be on another campus where the faculty get along as well as they do here,” he said. “Students see that. Prospective students see that. Their parents see that.”
Holly earned his bachelor’s degree from the Crane School of Music at SUNY-Potsdam, where he was one of only four music performance majors. The 746 others were studying music education.
“I had taught a few youngsters – private lessons – and I’d hear, ‘I don’t know why you’re a performance major. You’d make a great teacher,’ ” he said. “I saw myself as a timpanist in an orchestra.”
During his senior year, though, he began giving serious thought to staying in higher education. Professional percussionists often are “pigeonholed,” he said, whereas music faculty can play whatever instruments they want. Their motivation to perform is not money but the simple joy of making music.
After completing his M.M. in percussion performance from East Carolina University in 1980 and teaching at Western State University in Colorado, Holly came to the NIU School of Music in 1983 as an instructor.
He became an assistant professor two years later and achieved a full professorship in 1999. He served as assistant director of the school from 1996 to 2000.
The original job opening came courtesy of Al O’Connor, the famed percussion professor who had become assistant chair of the School of Music. Holly once told O’Connor that administration jobs were not in his future. “Just you wait,” O’Connor replied.
As a percussionist, Holly was a founding a member of the Abraxas Percussion Group and has performed with the Long Island Holiday Festival Orchestra, the Lyric Opera of New York and the North Carolina Symphony. For 11 seasons, he served as timpanist of the Illinois Chamber Symphony.
Holly, a member of the Percussive Arts Society since 1974, served as its president during 2005 and 2006. In that role he secured $3 million to facilitate the society’s move to Indianapolis. From 1986 to 2002, he was associate editor for “Percussive Notes” magazine.
During his months as acting dean, he has managed an annual budget near $10 million and secured funding for the Avalon Quartet concert series and for the dance performance program. He also acquired funding to support student travel for performances in New York City’s Lincoln Center and Costa Rica.
Now he looks forward to the “thrill” of helping faculty to achieve their own goals – “giving them a nudge, opening a door, making a connection” – and driving the college to “greatness.”
“We’re poised,” said Holly, who is optimistic about steadier state funding for capital projects such as the ailing Stevens Building. “Because of the strength of the faculty and the student body, we’re always on the brink of greatness.”
Holly lives in DeKalb with his wife, Jeanne, a science teacher at Sycamore Middle School, and their sons, Aaron, 14, and Sean, 12, both of whom attend Clinton Rosette Middle School. The couple’s 21-year-old daughter, Shannon, lives in Minneapolis.