Heather Ireland Robinson Credit: Photo by Lauren Deutsch

Heather Ireland Robinson has been executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago for less than a month, having officially replaced the long-serving Lauren Deutsch on March 1. But she’s been working as an arts administrator for 20 years, most recently lending her expertise to the Beverly Arts Center, where she served as executive director from 2014 to 2017. She previously worked for the South Side Community Art Center, Marwen, After School Matters, and Gallery 37, among other institutions—and from 2002 to 2004, she was the Jazz Institute’s education and community coordinator, helping lay the foundation for its Jazz Links program. Ireland Robinson has now become the first black person (and thus first black woman) to lead the JIC.

Ireland Robinson doesn’t characterize her new position at the Jazz Institute as a bigger challenge than her previous jobs but rather as a new opportunity. When we spoke on the phone, I got the impression that the JIC was a natural fit for her: she talked about her personal connection with jazz music, about gender imbalance in the jazz community, and about MKH Arts Management, the consulting firm she cofounded last year to help black arts and community organization find their voices and places within the wider ecosystem of Chicago arts.

Before we began our interview, I let Ireland Robinson know that as a black woman, my questions might come from a different perspective than those of many other writers. And she was very kind and excited to hear from me. Though she’s new to her position, she comes across as wise and comfortable within herself, as well as sensitive to the race and gender divides in her professional environment—which gave us plenty to talk about.

Jordannah Elizabeth: The Beverly Arts Center puts on diverse events and films, in regards to genre. Now you’re doing this very specific, niche senior executive position. What’s your personal connection to jazz?

Heather Ireland Robinson: In 1969—the late 60s, early 70s—there was no way around [jazz]. I mean, it’s the soundtrack of my childhood because of my father. It was always in the house. We used to play a game, where when we were out and we’d hear a song, [my father] would say, “I’ll give you a dollar if you can name the musician!” And it just became a fun thing—a part of our lives. The very nature of jazz brings people together—the whole idea of improvisation. I also have a theater background, so I tell stories based on bringing groups of people together. That’s what theater is. You need your costume designer, you need your actors, you need all that. So it’s always about collaboration, on a functional and technical level. That’s what I love about jazz music and performance too.

What was it in your professional resumé that got you the position?

This year marks my 20th year in arts administration. I started in 1998 at the Chicago Park District in the cultural programs department. That was one or two years out of graduate school for theater. At graduate school at DePaul, I taught a theater class to bilingual first graders—and to me, it instantly became my mission. I loved being onstage, would have loved to be in commercials at some point, but I really wanted to give people the opportunity to learn and do what I did. I wanted to give young people and artists a chance, and so that really set me forward in working with After School Matters. It was about creating the structure and the vision—that needed spreadsheets or whatever it may be—so that artists could shine.

It was also finding the money for them to do so. So my passion became creating a community through the arts, but also helping artists do their art and bringing art to the people. So I’ve got this passion for administration, if that’s possible—but it is.

So you make sure that the infrastructure in these organizations is streamlined?

You can’t have children learning dance, or murals being painted, or whatever the art and theater programs have going on if there isn’t some kind of structure behind it. An artist shouldn’t have to always be the one to do it. They should be able to say, “I want to take an art class. I want to teach a theater class. I want to do this, I want to do that,” and there are people behind the scenes that are making that happen for them.

You’ve also been appointed to the mayor’s Cultural Advisory Council and the board of directors of Arts Alliance Illinois. How do you balance your connection to the mayor and your political responsibility with your grassroots community work?

It’s all there to give the creative community a voice. Arts Alliance Illinois is about policy: How are people in Washington hearing what artists really need? Arts Alliance Illinois is all over the state—rural communities as well as urban communities. As far as the mayor’s connection is concerned, it’s not just politics, but it’s what kind of creative things are happening in the city and how can we inform people of those things. The other thing Arts Alliance Illinois does is on education policy and what’s happening for our youth. We’ve been able to really structure arts guidelines for schools and make arts a required part of the curriculum. So again, it’s kind of that view from above, so that at the grassroots level, on the ground, young people and teachers are getting what they need for the arts and their voices are being heard.

The guidelines ask if we are all speaking the same language of the arts, and is it being standardized through the level of learning, and if the level of excellence is happening everywhere.

Looking back on what you learned from working at the South Side Community Art Center, is the jazz community in Chicago segregated?

I hate to say it, but it can be segregated. We’ve got a lot of jazz music on the south side and there’s music on the north side, and so I would love to see more people kind of crossing boundaries and traveling to see music on both sides of Chicago. We are traveling north or downtown for the arts, whether it’s museums, whether it’s theater or anything. A lot of that is happening on the south side too: We’ve got the DuSable Museum, we’ve got Room43 and other places that have jazz music, but in general we’re kind of going downtown for the bigger names. I’d like to see that migration flow happen the other way—people from the north side going beyond the University of Chicago to see and hear music, and to really find out where these things are happening.

I do want to say that Hyde Park has a jazz fest. There’s the South Side Jazz Coalition and Room43 and Norman’s Bistro that has jazz, and the Hyde Park Jazz Society. So there is a lot going on. It’s just that people have to be ready to find it and ready to go to it.

As a black woman senior arts executive, do you find yourself personally without representation surrounding you?

On [the Jazz Institute’s] board— and to their own admission, it’s not as diverse as we would like. It is male heavy. It’s somewhat racially diverse, but not as much as we’d like it to be. They are a passionate group of jazz lovers and executives who are very good at being board members. They are very dedicated—they make a lot happen from time, talent, and treasure. But I do think one of the things I’d like to do, and they’re ready to do too, is add some more diversity and add some artists and some arts administrators.

As diverse as the Chicago arts scene can be, I have often looked up and been one of the only black people or black women in the room when representing arts organizations. The other thing that happens is, a lot of times black arts organizations are not in those rooms as much as they should be.

I started an arts consulting firm, MKH [Arts Management], with two of my former colleagues and very good friends to do just that—to help black arts organizations build capacity. Whether it’s marketing, grant writing, whether they’re going to be at the table, create our table, or inform the table that this is not how things are done at every arts organization—that’s really been our mission over the last year.

The Women’s Jazz Leadership Initiative meets at the Jazz Institute one to two times a month, which is an amazing thing. Do you think that women’s jazz events help inclusiveness, or would you like to see women being added to general jazz bills more frequently in the future?

I think we need both. But I think right now, and I would say the same for black people, sometimes we need our own. Sometimes we need our own unique voices to be heard, because you can find those all-male or male-driven revues or events more easily. And there are differences.

The women that have formed [the Women’s Jazz Leadership Initiative] are young women that work here at the Jazz Institute—high school students, college students. They came up with this idea. So they’ve got unique voices and unique needs that they’d like to be heard, and [their concert on March 9 was] a tribute to Von Freeman, who is a male. And this is their choice. I think that’s wonderful. It’s the ladies’ turn to talk about, you know, what he meant to Chicago jazz, what he meant to the world of jazz. So I think it’s both/and. We need opportunities for the individual unique voices of women to be heard and the individual unique needs of women to be served, as well as us doing this all together. It’s everyone’s responsibility to work on this kind of inclusion and diversity.