The brainchild of former N.C. Gov. Terry Sanford and author John Ehle, the North Carolina School of the Arts was established by the N.C. General Assembly in 1963. The Enabling Act directed the primary purpose of the School to be "the professional training, as distinguished from the liberal arts instruction, of talented students in the fields of music, drama, the dance and allied performing arts, at both the high school and college levels of instruction, with emphasis placed upon performance of the arts, and not upon academic studies of the arts."

The North Carolina School of the Arts is a free-standing campus within the University of North Carolina, and is quite different from its 15 sister institutions. Truly a cluster of conservatories, the School is a complex institution with a single, bold mission: to train talented young people for professional careers in dance, music, drama, filmmaking, and theatrical design and production. This training, coupled with the requisite liberal arts education, enables the School to offer undergraduate degrees as well as master’s degrees and the Professional Artist Certificate. In addition, the School offers the high school diploma with arts concentration in dance, drama, music, and visual arts. While courses are offered that give students an historic perspective and context in each of the arts disciplines, the primary emphasis in all programs is on performance and production. The School strives to foster an environment akin to that of an artistic colony where students are encouraged to develop their artistic abilities to the fullest. The School also provides a professional training ground in which students actively and realistically are involved in preparing for the practical aspects of making a living as artists.

The premise upon which the School was founded in 1963 was indeed unique. Many good ideas, including the establishment of this special conservatory, coalesced during the tenure of Gov. Terry Sanford. State funds were appropriated to begin a performing arts school and an Advisory Board of Artists was established to recommend to the governor a site for the School. In preliminary reports, the board recommended that "the host city should obligate itself to support the school." In return, "the school must serve the city as an arts center." Not surprisingly, there was considerable rivalry among the major cities of the state to be the site of the new school. The citizens of Winston-Salem, home of the first municipal arts council in the nation, vied for the school with particular zeal. In a two-day telephone campaign, volunteers raised nearly a million dollars in private funds to renovate the old Gray High School building — the city’s contribution to the effort. An enticing incentive to the final host city was the possibility of receiving a challenge grant from the Ford Foundation to prompt the Legislature to appropriate public dollars to support the operation of a performing arts school.

Composer Vittorio Giannini of The Juilliard School served as the School of the Arts' first president. It was his vision that shaped the School in the beginning and continues to make the School unique among its peers: utilizing a resident faculty of professional artists; beginning training at the age that talent first becomes evident; having a true community of artists, living together in a conservatory environment; and emphasizing learning by doing, with performance as an integral part of instruction. During its formative years, the School also was guided by people of vision, particularly its board of trustees, which was chaired by Dr. James H. Semans and included Smith Bagley, Hugh Cannon, Wallace Carroll, James McClure Clarke and R. Philip Hanes, among others.

Robert Ward, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and former member of the faculty of Juilliard, succeeded Giannini as the second president after Giannini’s untimely death in November 1966. Ward led the School through its first decade, when policies and programs were still being developed. During his tenure, the School more than doubled its faculty and enrollment; established a School of Design & Production, separate from the School of Drama; and created a high school Visual Arts Program. Ward also presided over the incorporation of the School into the University of North Carolina in the early 1970s, when 16 public senior institutions — including the North Carolina School of the Arts — became constituent institutions of the University of North Carolina. The title of "president" at the School was subsequently changed to "chancellor."

A third composer, Robert Suderburg, became chancellor of the School in 1974, following Martin Sokoloff, the administrative director, who served as acting chancellor from 1973-1974. Suderburg’s tenure was marked by major capital improvements at the School, financed through increased contributions from the state and private sources. Among these improvements were the completion of the Workplace and the opening of the Semans Library; the partial renovation of the old Gray High School building; the acquisition of the former Mack Truck facility; and the renovation of the old Carolina Theatre, now the Stevens Center.

Dr. Jane E. Milley, a pianist and former dean of the School of Fine Arts at California State University at Long Beach, assumed her post as chancellor at the School of the Arts in September 1984, following Lawrence Hart, former dean of music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who was interim chancellor during the 1983-84 school year. During her tenure, faculty salaries were increased; the School received funding from the North Carolina General Assembly for construction of Performance Place and renovation of the Gray Building and Design & Production facilities. She secured increased state funding to operate the Stevens Center; acquired additional student housing; enhanced the visiting artists program; and received approval to develop a Master of Music program and to begin planning for a new School of Film.

In the spring of 1990, Alex C. Ewing was appointed chancellor. He assumed the position in July 1990, following Philip R. Nelson, former dean of music at Yale University, who served as interim chancellor during the 1989-90 school year. Ewing had been associated with NCSA since 1985, when he became chairman of the Board of Visitors. In 1988 he established the Lucia Chase Endowed Fellowship for Dance at the School, in memory of his mother, a co-founder and principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. A graduate of Yale University, Ewing came to the School with a unique background as a former journalist, arts administrator and owner of one of the largest herds of champion Hereford cattle in the country. Chancellor Ewing spearheaded the establishment in 1993 of a fifth arts school, the School of Filmmaking, filling the need for training in the growing field of the film and television arts. During his tenure, student life on campus was improved with the establishment of the position of vice chancellor for student life and the opening of a 20,000-square-foot fitness center. Early in his administration, Ewing saw a critical need to improve the campus environment and worked with local and state leaders to form the Southeast Gateway Initiative, a neighborhood improvement plan. The first comprehensive campus plan designed to unify and enhance the entire campus was created after much fact-finding, discussion and analysis. Ewing successfully lobbied for the rerouting of Waughtown Street (a major city thoroughfare that divided the campus) and the creation of a new main entrance to the campus. Ewing increased enrollment by 40 percent, established a full-time alumni and career services office, and was instrumental in bringing the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts to the School. As chancellor, he also oversaw the success of the School’s $25 million campaign for scholarships and endowment, which was increased from $4 million to $15 million under his leadership.

After Ewing's retirement, Wade Hobgood, dean of the College of the Arts at California State University at Long Beach, became chancellor in 2000. A native of Wilson, N.C., Hobgood worked to secure passage of $42.5 million in higher education bonds – approved by N.C. voters in the fall of 2000 – that allowed the School to build a new School of Music Complex, a new Welcome Center, a new “connector building” between the two high school residence halls, a new School of Filmmaking Archives, an addition to Performance Place, and a new wig and makeup studio and costume shop. Hobgood also initiated a proposal to provide free tuition, room and board for North Carolina high school students accepted to NCSA; the initiative was approved by the N.C. General Assembly in the fall of 2001.

On July 1, 2005, Gretchen M. Bataille,senior vice president for academic affairs of the 16-campus University of North Carolina, was named interim chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts. A noted scholar in the field of Native American literature, Bataille had served as UNC’s top academic officer since 2000.  She assisted in developing a multitude of new policies for the campus.  Dr. Bataille secured $1 million from the Kenan Trust for a new scholarship program that became known as the Kenan Excellence Award. 
After a yearlong search, John F. Mauceri became NCSA’s seventh chancellor on July 1, 2006.  One of the world’s most accomplished conductors, writers, arrangers, and recording artists, Mr. Mauceri has enjoyed a long and varied career that spans music, theatre, film, and academia. 

During his first year as chancellor, he reorganized the structure of the upper management so that the deans reported directly to the chancellor, recognizing their administrative and artistic roles.  He successfully completed the search for the new deans of the School of Filmmaking, the School of Dance, and the Chief Advancement Officer.

Chancellor Mauceri encouraged regular meetings of the chairmen of the BOT, BOV, Foundation and the Kenan Advisory Board to promote communication and a sense of optimism.  His Vision 20/20 speech at his installation not only recognized the vision of the founders of the school, but also set innovative goals for the future of NCSA. 

Interaction with the students is vital to the chancellor.  He conducted rehearsals and performances with students, including all performances of West Side Story.  On a number of occasions he was able to bring students with him to learn and observe professional circumstances on the highest level.  His first year ended as 150 students journeyed with him to Ravinia to perform West Side Story and 21 high school ballerinas performed with him on stage of the Hollywood Bowl, to a standing ovation of 17,000 people.  Throughout the year he appeared on local and national television and radio, bringing the name and achievements of NCSA to millions of people. 

As NCSA chancellor, he will continue to work with the greatest artistic institutions in the world, while creating projects at the School that will enable its students to collaborate with performers and creators at the very forefront of their fields.