Jeremy Geffen started his job as Director of UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances only months prior to the pandemic. He talks to Brunswick’s Carlton Wilkinson about the pressures of planning the world-leading university’s culture seasons.
The University of California at Berkeley is one of the most prestigious colleges in the world, officially ranked by Forbes the No. 1 public university and one of the top five universities overall, along with MIT, Oxford and Harvard. Like any great campus, it is, on the one hand, a sheltered community; but on the other, it must also be always demonstrating relevance beyond its gates, reaching out to the surrounding city and to the world stage.
Jeremy Geffen, a former senior director and artistic adviser for Carnegie Hall, is now Executive and Artistic Director of UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, based at the university’s Zellerbach Hall. His work serves as an important bridge between the campus and the surrounding neighborhoods, a path that ultimately reaches a global audience. All forms of the performing arts are included, both groundbreaking and traditional. Seasoned professionals and young artists and ensembles just starting their careers are put before his audiences. Aspiring performers are also cultivated through his involvement in UC Berkeley’s Student Musical Activities.
Geffen took over at Cal Performances in 2019, just months before the onset of the pandemic. Since then a set of extreme pressures presented themselves, determining not only on what Cal Performances could do but what the global culture needs, what the world at large wants to talk about: isolation, polarization, LGBT and gender equality, racial violence and protest, the threat of nuclear war. Geffen knows that in addressing the needs of the campus and the local community he is giving voice to those concerns and also setting a benchmark for institutions elsewhere, participating in a global conversation that is currently feeling their own variations on those same pressures.
Planning his seasons involves solving that complex equation for all of those variables and he has received accolades for innovative programming that meets the moment. In particular, his “Illuminations” series, which builds a season of events around a central theme that changes each year, has provided a vehicle for campus intellectuals and working class attendees to come together on issues of current concern.