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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

New Executive Director for the Arts has diverse, celebrity-touched background

In his previous job as curator of a musical instrument museum, Cullen Strawn, Old Dominion's new Executive Director for the Arts, never knew when he'd get to school such famous musicians as Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal or former Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart.

Usually, they just showed up unannounced at his door. That door opened to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Ariz., where Strawn spent four years as curator of instruments.

"On any given day, there would be musicians or collectors of important or historical instruments coming through," said Strawn, a jazz saxophonist with a doctorate in folklore and ethnomusicology.

Strawn's brush with Browne, however, was more than a random twist. Strawn and his wife Emily attended Browne's concert in Phoenix one night a couple years ago and got to meet the legendary singer-songwriter.

Strawn offered Browne, an avid collector of guitars, a private tour of the museum. Soon after, Browne and his band pulled up in their tour bus and Strawn guided their visit till 3 a.m., "talking and exchanging ideas about music, film, all the arts, really."

Strawn smiled at the memory.

"So, yes," he said, "there were opportunities at the museum that I would say many curators at other museums wouldn't necessarily have."

It was fun for Strawn while it lasted. But when Old Dominion sought to replace Fred Bayersdorfer, who retired this spring as assistant dean for Arts and Letters, Strawn's interest buzzed like a string of a kora - an instrument he knows well from multiple research trips to the African nation of Mali.

"I felt like this position would be a good fit, given the types of things I've been interested in my whole life," said Strawn, who grew up in Greensboro, N.C. and attended UNC Greensboro. "I'm very excited to return to a university context. I love the university environment, being around all the ideas from different disciplines and the exchange of ideas that happen on a campus. I just love that kind of creative energy."

This is Strawn's first administrative position in higher education. Even beyond his academic expertise in Malian hunter's music, Strawn's background is diverse; he has experience as a sound engineer, video director, photographer and a web developer.

That depth caught the eye of Charles Wilson, ODU's dean of Arts and Letters.

"Cullen is a musician, but he fully appreciates and has experience in other art forms as well," Wilson said. "He is an interesting one; very personable, very engaging. He will be a very good addition."

As Executive Director for the Arts, Strawn will oversee all aspects of public and performing arts at Old Dominion. He said his goal is to increase collaboration within the arts department and to link stronger with the community.

Yet Strawn said he is so steeped in research as an ethnomusicologist - one who studies music in its cultural context - that he hopes at some point to return to Mali to continue his discovery into the roots of music.

"Old Dominion has become such a research university, I think continuing my research even in an administration position would be supported," he said.

Strawn said it was a fascinating undergraduate trip to Mali with an influential mentor that put him on the road to multiple visits - twice on Fulbright fellowships - and that set his career path.

"In time I realized there is something very special about Mali when it comes to music and culture," Strawn said. "Others who study African music will tell you that, as well. There are so many different styles that come out of Mali from different ethnic groups and regions. There is an excitement and energy there that just sets it apart."

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