Army to arts entrepreneur

Brian “BR” McDonald jokes that when he was in an Army special operations unit, getting ready to jump out of an airplane from 12,000 feet, he didn’t tell the guy next to him that he was an opera singer.

Now he’s happy to tell the story of how a preacher’s kid with a talent for music went to Carolina, majored in music and religious studies, learned to sing like a pro, entered the military, spent years helping fight terrorists and is turning his passion for the arts and veterans into a full-time venture.

McDonald’s career as an Army linguist and intelligence specialist helped prepare him to jump full-time into a unique venture, the nonprofit Veteran Artist Program (VAP). The organization, which McDonald founded in 2009, helps veterans launch (or re-launch) careers in the arts by connecting them to working artists.

“I do consider myself an entrepreneur,” says McDonald, a 2001 Carolina graduate who also earned an MBA from Loyola University Maryland in 2013.

Many veterans have drive and artistic skills, but their years of service have disconnected them from the professional networks working artists need.

“How do we transition from that heightened military deployment experience back into the arts?” McDonald asks.

VAP puts veteran artists and professional artists together on projects — performances, gallery exhibits, albums, films and more — to produce art informed by veterans’ experiences, and help provide them the professional connections they need. It’s also helping McDonald transition from life in the military and intelligence community back to the arts, the latest turn in his unusual life.

Path to Carolina

McDonald lived with his missionary parents in Taiwan for eight years as a child. He learned to speak Mandarin Chinese before moving to Virginia Beach, Va., in eighth grade. Throughout high school he sang in church and was involved in band, chorus and musical theater, and then entered Carolina as a dual music/religious studies major.

Terry Rhodes, a professor of music and senior associate dean for fine arts and humanities who directed McDonald in an opera workshop production of “The Magic Flute,” says he was a “talented and charismatic young man.”

Melissa Martin, a voice lecturer in the department of music and 2000 UNC graduate, starred as the romantic lead, Pamina, to McDonald’s Tamino in that Hill Hall production. “I really remember him as being very outgoing and having an infectious enthusiasm and passion for what we were doing,” she says.

McDonald also found time to moonlight in the Clef Hangers, a student a cappella group, serving as president his senior year. “It’s always been who I am to be doing a lot of things,” McDonald says. “Carolina offered me that opportunity. It was a perfect place to do a lot of different things.”

Read more from the College of Arts & Sciences article by Mark Tosczak.

April 25, 2014.