New Corcoran director to use experience in journalism, museum management to lead school

Media Credit: Danielle Towers | Assistant Photo Editor

Lauren Onkey took over as the director of the school on July 12.

Just four years ago, Lauren Onkey began spearheading a video series of live concerts for NPR.

Before too long, “Tiny Desk Concert” exploded in popularity, reeling in guest appearances from superstars like Mac Miller and Harry Styles. The series had attained billions of views when she stepped away from her position as NPR Music’s senior director over the summer.

Onkey oversaw the viral shows during her time at NPR from 2017 to this summer, as she led a team of journalists, critics and video content creators at the station to expand the impact of music reporting through public radio and social media.

Onkey is now stepping into another leading role in the arts, but this time at GW as the director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. She said she hopes to use her high-profile music industry leadership and previous museum experience to guide the school forward.

“It’s an honor to have the seat and to get to see students and faculty doing their core work has really been exciting,” she said in an interview.

Onkey joined GW in July as Corcoran’s second permanent director since the school merged with the University in 2014, succeeding interim director Kym Rice, the school’s current deputy director. She said she hopes to transfer her experience and management skills from NPR and other leadership roles to help improve diversity among faculty and students.

Journey to NPR Music
Before working for NPR Music, Onkey headed education and public programs at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland from 2008 to 2015. She said she has carried insight into Corcoran’s museum studies program with potential to unite creators and audiences after learning to organize art exhibitions and schedule guest speakers at the Hall.

“Having done deep experience in academia and then outside of academia has been really a revelation for me personally, as a leader and a thinker, to think about the ways in which people function differently in those worlds,” she said.

Onkey said NPR tracked diversity among the staff who decided on Tiny Desk programming, which attracted a younger and more diverse audience on YouTube than other NPR shows. Onkey also wrote obituaries of famed artists, reported on new album releases and reviewed media, like music documentaries at NPR.

She said she will use her NPR experience to include diverse voices in Corcoran’s decision making for performances or events to increase diversity, equity and inclusion within the school.

“Tiny Desk Concert had the youngest and most diverse audience of anything that NPR was doing, and I learned a lot about how you get to a result like that, which is very relevant to our experience here at GW as we think about our DEI goals,” she said.

Onkey said she observed listeners’ comments and attitudes from the video series to better understand what they wanted out of the series and create more unique episodes. She said she can apply a similar tactic to the Corcoran student community as she offers guidance for projects within different programs.

She said her time at NPR taught her to recognize students’ primary needs and wants and lead with her best intention for the school when supporting new artistic projects and performances.

“I learned some good lessons about not ever being kind of satisfied even with success, but staying kind of restless about something even when it’s working is really important so that you’re doing new things,” Onkey said.

Rebuilding the Corcoran community
Onkey said she plans to build interdisciplinary experiences, courses and projects among Corcoran’s programs as the school gradually returns to post-pandemic normalcy. She said she hopes to maintain performance spaces in the school through meetings with benefactors so Corcoran can continue its mission to advocate for and define the significance of the arts within the University.

The majority of Corcoran’s academic programs shifted online alongside the rest of the University’s schools during the pandemic, with select classes with studio space continuing with in-person elements. Since the University’s reopening, Corcoran has rebounded with a greater digital focus as some programs remain on hiatus or face their final years before they’re canceled.

Onkey said she’s spoken with Corcoran students at monthly lunch meetings this fall and learned about how they want to connect with more faculty members, making sure officials notify the students whenever new opportunities are available within the school.

“Sometimes when youre trying to solve a lot of immediate challenges, you’re forgetting to look down the road,” Onkey said. “It’s important in my job that I do that.”

Suse Anderson, an assistant professor of museum studies, said Onkey has been consulting faculty members in academic committees to familiarize herself with each program’s obstacles, like a lack of funding or advertising for events and performances. She said Onkey must learn about the current state of the school from its faculty and students before restoring the Corcoran School community and addressing its challenges as the pandemic winds down.

“Coming in to understand what the students are experiencing, what staff are experiencing, what the faculty are experiencing is I think that in itself is a pretty good place to start,” Anderson said.

The future of arts at GW
Andrea Dietz, an assistant professor of exhibition design, said Onkey promised her earlier this month to prioritize developing a “stable” approach to improve the design department. She said most of Corcoran’s challenges stem from the University overlooking the school’s significance, and she hopes Onkey can secure Corcoran’s place and value within GW and the larger arts and design community.

“My expectations for real improvements within one year are minimal,” she said. “I simply wish to see active outreach to all community members and evidence of processing findings via public issuance of an assessment and action plan after the year concludes.”

Onkey said she has met with representatives from the National Gallery of Art to potentially establish art exhibition partnerships with the school. She said the National Gallery is “committed” to hosting an annual exhibition and other collaborated projects with the school in the Flagg Building once some repairs are completed.

She said she hasn’t met with any arts student organizations in the District, but she plans to as part of her next steps as director.

“What’s exciting to think about that is not only having wonderful exhibits here in the Flagg Building but also how those exhibits can generate great learning opportunities for students, special lecture opportunities and related performances that can help us be a hub,” Onkey said.

Zahaan Riyaz contributed reporting.

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