After a 10-month, international search, Spoleto Festival USA has announced the appointment of its new general director.
Mena Mark Hanna is the fourth person to hold the top spot since the festival's launch in 1977, at times sharing the leadership role with other key curators and administrative leaders. He succeeds Nigel Redden, who last year announced his retirement after 35 years leading the nonprofit.
Hanna’s appointment concludes a comprehensive search by a Spoleto Festival USA committee comprised of board and staff members. He will begin his new role in October, timed with Redden's departure.
“Mena possesses a depth of knowledge and experience across artistic genres, and also — essential for Spoleto and Charleston — understands and is passionate about the power of artistic expression to bridge differences and bring people together,” said Alicia Gregory, president of Spoleto's board.
An arts administrator, musicologist, educator and composer, Hanna brings wide-ranging experience in the performing arts field. He has held both leadership and educator roles in arts organizations based in the United States, at renowned cultural centers such as the Houston Grand Opera, as well as internationally.
Hanna's educational background, as well as his love of opera and deep understanding of classical music, two hallmarks of the festival, resonated strongly with the search committee, Gregory said.
Spoleto did not disclose Hanna's salary, saying it was on par with similar groups. In 2019, the group paid Redden $271,530, which was just over 3.3 percent of the charity's overall revenue, according to documents filed with the federal government. Overall, just over one-fifth of the nonprofit's revenue went to administration.
The new general director comes to Spoleto from Berlin’s Barenboim-Said Akademie, a music academy offering a bachelor's degree in music. It is fully supported by the federal government of Germany and draws most of its students from the Middle East and North Africa.
The institution also boasts a renowned Frank Gehry-designed concert hall, the Pierre Boulez Saal, which presents a wide array of programs and festivals over the course of a year.
As founding dean and professor of musicology and composition, Hanna led the conceptualization and implementation of a multidisciplinary curriculum, instituted comprehensive academic and artistic administrative processes and drove successful fundraising campaigns.
Hanna was also instrumental in curating innovative and experimental programming, championing the music of both emerging and established composers. He forged collaborative ventures with numerous arts-and-culture and academic institutions as well, including the Goethe-Institut, the British Council and the Guggenheim Museum.
Hanna's experience in Berlin was particularly compelling to the Spoleto search team. Renowned as a vibrant contemporary arts hub, Berlin is celebrated for looking to art to reconcile with its past.
"We felt that he would bring back to us a unique skill set and that he would have this terrific understanding of all of the genres that the festival programs and that he would understand how to approach the programming in a cohesive manner," Gregory said.
Similarly, Charleston is also a place currently reconciling with its past, as evidenced in recent cultural projects such as the International African American Museum. For Hanna, those parallels offer an opportunity for the arts in Charleston.
"That's what art can do. Art can help us understand that complexity ... and that's why Charleston is so amazing," he said.
As assistant artistic director of the Houston Grand Opera, Hanna was the main artistic planning partner with the company’s artistic and music director, supporting the company’s strategic management and vision, developing opera commissions, leading main-stage educational initiatives and amplifying the company’s fundraising campaigns.
Hanna brings a global perspective to the festival by way of his personal background as well. Born in London and raised in New Jersey, he is a first-generation American of Coptic Egyptian descent who discovered his love for music at around age 9 through a fascination with Coptic chant, a passion he has pursued in his scholarship.
As a youth, Hanna also performed as a soprano in the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale, traveling to the Czech Republic to perform, which further enthralled him.
He is a graduate of Temple University, where he was recognized with the inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award. He received a doctorate from Merton College, Oxford, England, where he studied musicology and music composition. Recent lectures have included “The Conversation by Music: from Divided Past to Unified Tomorrow” given at the Gyeonggi Arts Center, South Korea.
According to a statement from the Spoleto board, Hanna will advance Spoleto’s commitment to produce and present innovative and world-class artistic programming across performing arts disciplines; provide a platform for young and established artists alike; feature the rich cultural diversity and creative community of Charleston and promote the festival’s hometown as an international arts destination.
“Spoleto Festival USA has a strong legacy of presenting exemplary, cutting-edge work that showcases and celebrates the breadth of artistic expression. It has been a dream of mine to lead a multidisciplinary festival, and there is no other like Spoleto,” Hanna said.
“What really excites me most about Spoleto is the opportunity to promote robust engagement with these art forms, and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and how we can use the arts to bridge our differences.”
Under the leadership of Redden, Charleston's 17-day annual arts infusion established its position as a premier performing arts festival in the U.S.
“Spoleto reflects the dynamism, creativity, and passion of the local community, and I know that under Mena’s leadership the festival will continue to have a profoundly positive impact in supporting, inspiring and nurturing young performers, artists and creatives who practice between and beyond genres," Redden said. "I am excited to see the innovative and forward-thinking ideas that Mena will bring to Spoleto and am confident it will thrive under his direction.”
The top Spoleto Festival USA position was first held by Gian Carlo Menotti. The acclaimed Italian composer previously founded the Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds) in Spoleto, Italy, in 1958. In 1977, he mounted a similar cross-disciplinary festival in the U.S. in Charleston. Following Menotti's departure in 1993, Milton Rhodes was appointed the post, working with Marcus Overton, with Redden taking over in 1995.
Since its inception, Spoleto Festival USA has been widely regarded as a catalyzing, dynamic force that elevated the city's status as vibrant arts destination while also serving as an economic driver for the city of Charleston.
It regularly attracts leading artists, from its early days with then-emerging cellist Yo-Yo Ma and jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald to recent years presenting productions by heavy hitters such as composer and musician Rhiannon Giddens and Shakespeare's Globe. At the same time, the festival does not shy away from works that demonstrate an appetite for risk-taking.
According to Gregory, the festival is primed for its next chapter with a new leader ready that has the breadth of knowledge, experience and perspective to address the challenges and issues of today's art world.
She also points out that at a time when creating access to and opportunities for meaningful representation is crucially important — in the cultural sector and across society — the next leader of the festival must understand the power of art in promoting civic pride and effecting social change.
"The board is unanimous in Mena’s appointment, and is confident that we have found such a leader in Mena, who brings energy, collaborative instincts and empathetic leadership to the position."
Hanna is ready for the move to Charleston in October with his wife, Sarah Moriarty, a publishing professional, and their 15-month-old son. During a Zoom interview from Berlin, his enthusiasm was palpable. In an affable, easygoing fashion, he expanded upon the possibilities of his new role.
"It's such a dream for me, this organization, this festival," he said, adding he has always wanted to run a multidisciplinary festival, drawn by how different art forms and a diverse set of artists play off of each other, influence each other and create a more impactful artistic and aesthetic experience.
"There are certain things that art can do. Art uplifts, art confronts, art provides catharsis, and, for me, most importantly, it's through the varieties of different artistic expression that we can understand the other — that 'they' are not so different from 'us.'"