CHAPEL HILL -- Don Luse had a packed house and a problem.
A full symphony was about to perform, but the musicians didn't have a place in Memorial Hall to dress or tune their instruments.
There were no good options, Luse concluded. They would have to change and tune up in a nearby building.
The director of the Carolina Union watched as the symphony trudged through the cold winter air to Memorial Hall, its instruments losing their tuning.
"It was a disaster," he said.
As Chancellor James Moeser steps down this week, leaders in the campus and Chapel Hill-Carrboro arts communities are praising the former concert-organist for putting the spotlight on a forgotten sector.
At a time when arts programs are often the first casualties of strapped school budgets and a struggling economy, UNC's first "artist-chancellor," as one donor called him, made the arts a priority of his administration.
"Art is an important part of everyone's life if they live a full life," Moeser said in an interview. "We aren't fully developed human beings if we live without art."
Moeser leaves behind a dramatically different arts scene than the one he inherited
When he took over in 2000, UNC had a premier athletics department but its arts facilities had been neglected, Luse said.
"We had excellent athletic facilities, but our arts facilities were horrible," he said.
The main performance space, Memorial Hall, lacked air-conditioning, adequate seating, stage, and wingspace and didn't have dressing rooms.
"It was a challenge to do anything," he said.
And it wasn't just Memorial Hall that needed repair. The arts buildings on campus all lacked basic 21st century amenities like air-conditioning.
Artists in Gerrard Hall, a smaller performance space built in 1822, endured sweat-soaked performances.
Tim Carter, chairman of the music department, said professors in Hill Hall, the main music building, have had to strain their voices to be heard over nearby performers.
Moeser's assessment that UNC could not have a top-notch arts scene without adequate facilities paved the way for a construction plan that would renovate, restore, and expand the arts buildings on campus, Luse said.
New arts common
Just a year after he became chancellor, Moeser announced plans to build an "arts common," a center for the arts extending from Franklin Street to historic Playmakers Theatre in the northwest quadrant of campus.
The first phase of construction -- renovations to Gerrard and Memorial Halls, and Old Playmaker's Theatre -- is already finished, said Stephen Allred, executive vice provost and chair of the arts common planning committee.
Memorial Hall underwent an $18 million renovation in 2005 that gave it more leg room, a new lobby, restrooms, air conditioning, dressing rooms, a bigger stage house with modern lighting, a better sound stage and an art-gallery and reception room.
The renovation has served not only students but people across the Triangle who can now enjoy world-class performances for a fraction of what they would pay on Broadway.
Although the Carolina Union already had plans to renovate Memorial Hall, Moeser made that vision a reality, Luse said.
"We got a real shot in the arm when he came to campus," he said.
"He understood and supported what we were trying to do and I think he had a vision that was bigger and beyond what were even thinking at that time."
The next phase of arts common construction, slated for completion by January, will add a new 100,000-square-foot music building between Hanes and Abernethy Halls. After a second phase of construction it will have a 650-seat concert hall big enough for a full-symphony orchestra.
The final phase of the Arts Common, which still requires funding, will add a new wing to the Ackland Art Museum and refurbish Hill and Smith Halls.
Allred said Moeser was instrumental to the fundraising process and participated in all phases of development.
"I remember having a number of meetings with the chancellor to look at variations on the arts common and how it would be laid out and he was deeply involved in all those discussions," he said.
The "Arts Czar"
Emil Kang's stepped into Moeser's office with trepidation.
The head of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Kang felt slightly out of his element against the collegiate backdrop of rolling grass hills, historic buildings and the bustle of students going to and from class.
Though he came to UNC to interview for a new position, he said he did not expect to speak directly to the chancellor of a major public university.
To ease his nerves, Kang touched on a subject of common interest: music. Within minutes, the strangers started chatting like old friends about their favorite musicians, touching on everyone from classical musicians to James Taylor.
"It was incredible to me that I was sitting at a university chancellor's office talking about Gustav Mahler," Kang said.
As tensions relaxed, the conversation shifted focus to the future of the arts at UNC.
Moeser's vision of the campus arts scene serving regional audiences struck Kang, who said his life's mission is reminding people of the value of arts in society.
When he left Moeser's office, he knew he wanted to become UNC's first executive director of the arts, although he'd have to move his family from Detroit and take a pay cut.
"Moeser's belief that the arts improve us as people is something you can't put a price tag on," he said.
Looking to the future
Arts leaders say Moeser's legacy will continue to transform how students and community members experience the arts.
Joseph Haj, producing artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company, said Moeser's support went beyond rhetoric.
When the theater staged "When the Bulbul Stopped Singing," a play about a Palestinian human-rights lawyer, protesters demonstrated outside the theater. Haj didn't know how Moeser would react.
But when the curtains parted on opening night, he peeked from backstage and saw Moeser in the front row.
"I think it's one thing to say that you like the arts and sit in your office and never show up, but he's here and he comes," Haj said.
"It's a powerful indication to our community at large that their chancellor values the arts in a significant way."
People take their cue from the chancellor, said Emily Kass, executive director of the Ackland Art Museum, who said the chancellor supported her expanding artistic opportunities for students and broader communities.
"The leader sets the tone and sets the priorities, and all of the administrative leaders on the campus reflected his interests and priorities in their commitment to Ackland," she said.
Jon Wilner, executive director of the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, said the campus arts administrators will continue to expand Moeser's legacy.
He's already collaborated with Haj to create the Youth Drama Conservatory, a program that gives local students the chance to train with top UNC drama professors. And he's worked with the Ackland to create multimedia experiences for students.
Kang said the arts can also benefit local businesses.
"Most of our patrons who come from off campus park and have dinner or a drink," he said.
Scott Maitland, owner of Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery, said Moeser has been more successful than town officials at stimulating downtown business.
"The Arts Common is the best thing to happen to downtown since it was created, and I see it directly," he said. "It maintains the brand of Chapel Hill in a way that nobody else, especially political leadership, has been able to."
He said the high caliber of performances Memorial Hall has attracted since its renovation has drawn crowds from far away.
"I've got 1,450 people going to an event one block away," he said. "If I can get five to ten percent of those people that's a lot of people, and I do."