As the acute phases of the COVID-19 pandemic recede into memory, musicians are eagerly resuming their concert careers. Chamber Music America (CMA) is a national service organization that provides ensemble music professionals with access to various resources and benefits, including professional development seminars, grants and awards, and, not least, opportunities to network with presenters, managers, and other musicians and ensemble professionals, especially with its annual National Conference. Kevin Kwan Loucks, a concert pianist, educator, and arts entrepreneur serves as the CEO of CMA.
Kevin Kwan Loucks is a graduate of The Juilliard School in New York City and holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Stony Brook University, where he served as Head of Piano for the Pre-College Division and Teaching Assistant for the Emerson String Quartet. As Co-Founder of Chamber Music | OC, he earned recognition from Orange County Business Journal and OC Weekly which named him one of Southern California’s most influential people. We spoke to him in advance of CMA’s 45th Annual National Conference, to be held January 5-8, 2023 in New York City.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and the experiences that you had leading up to your current CEO position at Chamber Music America?
My professional background really combines two separate tracks, but there has been considerable overlap along the way which has led to some wonderful outcomes. First and foremost, I am a classically-trained practicing artist – I perform chamber music regularly with my ensemble, Trio Céleste, and with other amazing colleagues around the country. In 2012, I co-founded the arts organization Chamber Music | OC, which the LA Times credited for “keeping classical music going in Orange County” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All of my creative work, which centered around a certain type of artistic practice for specific communities, led to a stronger sense of determination to do more for artists. After earning a terminal degree in piano performance, I went back to school for an Executive MBA, which was a critically important experience; it forced me to look at the creative arts economy in a very different way, and inspired me to focus on program development as a way to better support artist communities.
Through these experiences, I felt fully equipped to move into this role at Chamber Music America. It was a natural fit. Looking at the needs of the CMA membership community through the lens of a practicing artist helps inform the strategies and programs that we invest in. Understanding this potential is critical, as well as possessing the skills – and courage – to exercise it.
What do you consider to be qualities of a good leader?
The best leaders are creative problem-solvers who are innately collaborative. Innovation is an important ingredient. Starting a non-profit organization, playing chamber music all my life, and having incredible mentors like Julian Martin (my teacher at The Juilliard School) and Shawn Hanna (my Scoutmaster from Troop 125) – all of these things have contributed to the building of leadership skills that I rely on every day.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted CMA’s business model? And what takeaways, if any, have you gleaned?
CMA is an organization primarily known for its granting work, which is designed to support the small ensemble community in diverse ways. We are fortunate to have strong partnerships with foundations that believe in our vision, and who are incredibly supportive of our programs and the communities we serve. But the pandemic presented the opportunity for us to let go of things that weren’t working before — to reevaluate everything that we were doing, and to challenge us to evolve into something more meaningful. We looked at how we were serving our members, and quickly realized that their needs had changed considerably – and that we must innovate to meet them where they were.
In addition to our portfolio of granting opportunities, we’re investing in new learning curricula, transforming our annual conference, and will be unveiling a new physical space in New York City that will help reshape the organization and provide new opportunities for our members and the community at large.
How has your thinking about CMA’s conference shifted?
Last year, our conference was completely virtual, creating new pathways of accessibility that did not exist before. The virtual component led to some great outcomes: hundreds of viewers from 37 different states and 13 countries including Germany, France, Mexico, South Korea, Colombia, Italy, Costa Rica, and Brazil. It inspired our team to create that same accessibility and openness in everything we do, and will remain an important component even when we are live and in-person at the Westin Times Square this January 2023. We are also working to recreate the conference experience in other locations, and will be holding special events in the Midwest and the South before branching out more widely throughout the country.
How do you think about your role as CEO? What does the position entail?
It’s really about finding the best way to move the organization forward, and that is almost always going to be through value creation for our members. These propositions are key, and I am convinced that everyone will want to be part of our future once we unveil our strategic plan.
Internally, I’m looking at the specific needs of our team. Understanding what people need to be successful is something that is often overlooked, but I refuse to ignore it; we have instituted a four-day workweek, and a work-from-home policy that has helped develop trust and more efficient communication – less burnout.
We’re actively growing the team, adding key individuals and creating brand new roles based on organizational aspirations. I do a lot of listening – with our team, our board, our members, and our funders – to understand what their needs are and what they anticipate needing in the future. CMA is a service organization that is poised to serve our community in new and diverse ways, and I’m excited to be leading it during this period of growth.
How does your organization center Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as a core value?
Chamber Music America made a commitment to anti-racist practices in 2016, years before it was common practice, and continues to be a leader in the field today. It is a critical part of who we are, and is proudly evident from the governance level to our staff, grantees, and membership community. It steers all our decision-making and inspires us to be better every day.
We acknowledge and value how a range of different perspectives makes us a better organization. From a programmatic standpoint, it is driving how we do business. CMA’s learning curriculum, which we are officially launching in early 2023, is a way to create a more equitable distribution of information and knowledge. It will create a more even playing field, and will empower communities by affording the tools individuals need to better advocate for themselves and their art. If everyone has access to the same resources, everyone will have a better chance to be heard, be seen, and ultimately, be successful.
Chamber Music America holds its 45th Annual National Conference January 5-8, 2023 in New York City.