Coming from a family with several generations rooted in the South, CC Conner was drawn in by the music and rich cultural life Vienna had to offer. He loved it so much, he stayed on as a student assistant for the following year. Upon his return, CC attended Columbia Law School and practiced law on Wall Street for several years before quitting to manage a small modern dance company. Throughout his career – from lawyer to overseeing the Joffrey Ballet’s move to Chicago to becoming Managing Director of the Houston Ballet – CC has expertly blended his passions for the arts and the law. Read on to learn how study abroad impacted CC’s career path and how the love of opera he developed in Vienna remains a constant in his life today.
IES Abroad: Why did you choose to go to Vienna?
CC: I was a serious musician and planned to become a professional musician growing up. I was accepted at the Eastman School of Music and was a flute player. My family said that was fine, but “Are you sure that you can make a living as a musician?” I wanted to be the first flute player in one of the top five orchestras in the country. But when I looked at the number of students who graduate in flute each year from just Eastman, Curtis, Julliard, and Peabody, there were four times as many flute players than you have in the top five orchestras put together, much less the first chair. Statistically, my parents were right. I decided not to do it and went to college and spent the spring of my junior year and all of my senior year in Vienna. Music was the prime motivator. Also, being in Vienna where I could start learning German from scratch worked wonderfully. I had met a student at the University of North Carolina who had studied with IES Abroad the year before in Vienna. She spoke very highly of the program. It was an easy choice!
IES Abroad: What are some of your greatest memories from your time in Vienna?
CC: So many of the fabulous memories were traveling around Europe with my friends from IES Abroad: hitchhiking to Zurich for the weekend and taking the trains through Yugoslavia and Greece for the February break. During those days we had several organized trips, including Italy at Easter. During the spring of 1963, I went to Prague for May Day and watched the communist parades during the Cold War. At the lake on the Hungarian border, we’d play this game to see how close we could get to the guard towers before they would start screaming at us to back off. It was all of sudden realizing that we are in a Cold War and this was it! We went through Checkpoint Charlie. It woke us up to the geopolitical conflict and what was really going on, as opposed to simply seeing it on the news in the United States.
One of the most painful experiences was that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while we were in Vienna. We went to a coffee house because that was the only place where you could find a television set. A lot of sympathy came our way. Europeans loved Americans in those days. We were the people who had saved them in the Second World War. We could hitchhike anywhere. We would set down our suitcase emblazoned with an American flag at the side of the road, and we’d be picked up immediately. I remember an occasion when a couple from Hanover picked me up, took me to their house, fed me dinner, and had me stay the night. In the morning, they drove me to the Autobahn to the checkpoint to East Germany. We had not become the “ugly Americans” at that point. It was rewarding to see what we as a country had done and how it was appreciated.
IES Abroad: In what ways did study abroad impact or change the way you think?
CC: The biggest impact was in realizing that I had grown up in the very sheltered South. It took studying abroad in Vienna for me to realize that everyone I knew in the South virtually came from many generations of Southerners. Between the Civil War and the Second World War, no immigrant groups moved into the South. It wasn’t until after the Second World War with military bases around the country and then companies becoming more national in scope that people started moving around the country with newcomers to the South. In the boat going over to Vienna, half of the kids in my class were excited because they were going to see where their grandparents came from. They would all ask me where my grandparents came from. I could go back ten generations, and all of my family came from the South. It was an eye opener about how sheltered we were. Then, of course, living in Europe for a year-and-a-half with all of the cultural resources there, which was always my passion, I thought I couldn’t go back to the South. I realized that I had to live in a big city, so I applied to Columbia Law School. New York City from the 20th Century on has been the main arts capital of the world in many respects.
IES Abroad: You have had an extraordinary career blending your passion for the arts with your acumen for business and law. How did this come about?
CC Conner: While I was very immersed in the performing arts growing up, opera was not something that you had Greensboro, North Carolina. After my stay in Vienna, I decided that what I really wanted to do was to manage the Metropolitan Opera someday. However, I went to law school and practiced law. Pretty early in my career in New York, I became involved with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, which was one of the first of those type of organizations in the 1960s. I joined the board probably in ‘69 or ‘70 and become very involved with the arts scene in New York and got involved in dance.
There was so much dance going on in New York, and after a year and a half in Vienna, three years of law school in New York, and the beginning of my working career in New York, I thought, “Ok, I have seen every opera that there was to see several times.” I decided that maybe it was time for me to see what else there is. I took ballet and tap for one year as a six or seven year old, and as a twelve or thirteen year old, I was the Junior State Arthur Murry Dance Champion in North Carolina! So, I did have some dance training. In my age group in the South, when you were a young teenager, you went to ballroom dancing school to learn how to be proper ladies and gentlemen in the South. So, I did have some dancing talent.
IES Abroad: You went on to become the Executive Director of the Joffrey Ballet and Managing Director of the Houston Ballet. What led you to transition from law to working full-time in the arts?
CC: After nine years working on Wall Street, I quit and ran a small modern dance company. I was the business manager, the associate artistic director, stage crew, booking agent, and fundraiser. I was everything! After about five years, I had to earn a living again and practiced law once more in New York. I practiced law in New York for about 25 years in total. In the early 1990s, The Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre were both in terrible financial condition, being effectively bankrupt. The Joffrey was looking for a new executive director. At that point, anybody who had a job outside the dance field would not leave their position to save a bankrupt company, and people in the dance field who didn’t have jobs were questioned about why they didn’t have jobs. As someone who had run a little dance company ten years earlier, I was hired by The Joffrey. I ran the strategic plan that basically saved The Joffrey, and moved it to Chicago in 1995.
While we were in the process of moving Joffrey, Houston Ballet was looking for a new director. I interviewed and got the job. While I loved the Joffrey and was thrilled that I had put together a plan to save it, after three stressful years of struggle to keep it alive, I felt that I needed a stable company instead of the struggle of establishing Joffrey in Chicago. So, I moved to Houston in 1995 and was the director here for 17 years, retiring in 2012. We had a million dollar deficit when I got here. In all my years, we had a surplus and built a $47 million office and rehearsal facility, which is the largest of any professional dance company in the United States. So, that is how I went from law to the arts, back and forth, frankly. A lot of the negotiating skills that I developed as a corporate securities and transactional lawyer are useful in running a large organization. Of course, in my generation, the courses and programs about arts management didn’t exist. So, none of us came with a college degree in arts administration. It was on-the-job training.
IES Abroad: How important has an international perspective been for you in your roles as the leader of the ballet or as a lawyer?
CC: It certainly did as a lawyer. After my time on Wall Street and then running the small dance company, the work of the firm that I then joined was for European family-owned or closely-owned companies that were doing business in the United States. Clients included the Italian National Petroleum Chemical Company, which had operations all over the Unites States; Ringier, which was the largest Swiss publishing company; Bahlsen, the German cookie maker; and Omega, the Swiss watchmaker. After I came back from Vienna, I wanted to go back and work in Europe, but I never actively pursued it, as life was busy simply going on. I traveled constantly, going back and forth to Europe to work with our European clients. Certainly, IES Abroad gave me the confidence to feel quite at home in Europe.
IES Abroad: How has study abroad impacted you personally?
CC: Studying abroad was when I really grew. It was when I really matured. I saw the world in a whole different way. It broadened my appreciation for people and for people of different backgrounds. Of course, when I was in Vienna, it was during the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. It helped me to simply open my eyes and realize that no one type or group of people is better than any other. In my family, we traveled. We went to New York every year or every other year; but we didn’t have personal relationships with people who weren’t like us. Vienna changed my view of people and the world and opened my eyes to so much culture! As IES Abroad students, we traveled all over Europe and were really exposed to history and culture and how it impacts everyday life.
IES Abroad: What is one thing you learned while abroad that remains a constant in your life today?
CC: Opera! It was Vienna that really opened my eyes to opera. As a matter of fact, what stands out was standing all night in the State Opera standing room ticket line! One of my most vivid memories was being an Ethiopian slave in Aida in Vienna. I’ve lived in Houston for twenty years, and I still have my subscription to the Metropolitan Opera. Vienna moved me into a great lover of opera. Studying abroad in Vienna also gave me a huge amount of confidence. In Vienna, I fit in perfectly! In Europe, I became much more my inner self and comfortable in my own skin.
IES Abroad: What advice do you have for students today who are considering studying abroad?
CC: My answer would be go, go, go, go, go!! Study abroad is one of the most broadening experiences a person can have. Everyone should do it! I cannot say enough positive things about it. It really was a life-changer. And I know that when I read all of the things from IES Abroad, that everyone says this. It really is!