Strathmore: Growing a vibrant arts community that welcomes everyone

Through creative partnerships with Step Afrika! and other local performers, Strathmore brings arts programming to diverse communities across Montgomery County

As DC-area demographics have evolved over the recent decades, so have the missions of some of the area’s nimble performing arts venues so that they are welcoming to those they serve and reach out to.

Strathmore Music Center. Photo by Jim Morris.
Strathmore Music Center. Photo by Jim Morris.

In response to the area’s increasingly more diverse and multilingual populations, performing arts leaders are taking into account the manner in which they interact with and within their communities.

For some leadership, it is a time to not only continue their historic missions but also to reassess how they reflect the diversity of their communities in the programs presented. And diversity within the wide DC area varies greatly from county to county.

Developing creative partnerships to provide fresh approaches to better connect is no one-way conversation if it is to be effective. There is so much expertise and knowledge to be gained by truly listening.

With that as a preface, this is the first of two articles about how Strathmore is shaping itself with the changing demographics and landscape in its area. According to recent Census Bureau data, Montgomery County’s population of a little over one million is about 60% white, 20% Black or African American, 15.6% Asian, 0.7% American Indian, 0.1% Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, and 3.4% from two or more races. Residents of Hispanic or Latino origin (of any race) compose 20% of the county’s population.

Strathmore continues its mission to present the best in the performing arts from a wide array of regional artists and organizations, as well as those who are national performers, continues unabated. This can be seen in Strathmore’s 2019-2020 offerings.

Joi Brown, Strathmore, Vice President of Programming/Artistic Director. Photo courtesy of Strathmore.
Joi Brown, Strathmore, Vice President of Programming/Artistic Director. Photo courtesy of Strathmore.

But Strathmore also has new initiatives to help the arts thrive beyond the Strathmore main stage. “At the core of Strathmore’s history is a commitment to the development of artists and partner organizations. This is really what distinguishes leading presenting organizations in the industry from those that operate more as venue managers. We will always appreciate and applaud the talented touring artists who visit us for a single night,” said Joi Brown, Vice President of Programming/Artistic Director, in a recent interview.

“The opportunity to work with individual artists and arts organizations over extended periods of time, and on more ambitious complex projects, is what gives Strathmore depth of purpose. This is how arts organizations make lasting contributions and impact to their communities,” added Brown.

For Strathmore leadership, the arts are important to the quality of life in Montgomery County. “The arts are a source of joy, expression, deepening skill, cultural sharing, confidence and overall well-being for people of all ages,” said Lauren Campbell, Director of Education, in a phone conversation.

“We think that our role in the county and beyond is much bigger than presenting artists on our stages. While bringing world-class music, dance, and visual arts to Strathmore is an important part of our mission, we also see it as critical to really go into our community, and to remove barriers that might keep people from experiencing the arts,” added Campbell.

Campbell quickly noted one of Strathmore’s long-time partnerships, with StepAfrika!–the only professional dance company in the world dedicated to the art of step.

Strathmore has worked with Step Afrika! for many years through education programs and large-scale performances. “We are committed to putting artists at the center of what we do, and letting our work always be grounded in and led by artists. We are lucky to be near their home base in DC, since they are beloved around the world,” said Campbell.

Campbell went on to share how Step Afrika! has been “particularly impactful, and in our partnership has included everything from school assemblies and field trips to in-depth residencies with school groups forming their own step teams.”

C. Brian Williams, Founder and Executive Director, Step Afrika! Photo courtesy of Strathmore.
C. Brian Williams, Founder and Executive Director, Step Afrika! Photo courtesy of Strathmore.

With that as background, I chatted with C. Brian Williams, Step Afrika! Founder and Executive Director. “Step Afrika!’s mission directly aligns with Strathmore’s commitment to expanding arts and culture in Montgomery County, and we have been happy to have a strong partnership,” said Williams. “Strathmore is an amazing partner that has supported Step Afrika!’s artistic growth and development both on stage and in the community.”

Step Afrika! is in the midst of celebrating 25 years of performances since its founding. Asked to describe stepping for DCMTA readers, Williams described the tradition of stepping as “a polyrhythmic, percussive dance form that uses the body as an instrument.”

Williams added, “Step Afrika! promotes stepping as a contemporary dance genre through critically-acclaimed performances and arts education programs. Creatively engaging audiences across the globe, the Company creates new full-length productions that educate and expand the narrative on stepping’s unique American history.”

Asked about the partnership with Strathmore, Williams noted that “by offering performances and programs in this area, we add to the diverse cultural and artistic opportunities available to students and residents.”

As one example of the partnership with Strathmore, Step Afrika! has offered “Step Up to College” residencies to three schools in eastern Montgomery County. “During the three-month program, we meet with students once a week and discuss the history of stepping; career/college goals and aspirations; along with basic health and fitness information,” noted Williams.

“The students also learn choreography and, ultimately, participate in a culminating community step show organized by Strathmore in eastern Montgomery County for family, friends, and the general public,” said Williams. “It is an opportunity for the students to showcase what they’ve learned, as well as connect with peers from across the county.”

Step Afrika! will be premiering an excerpt from its feature work currently in progress, Drumfolk, inspired by the Stono Rebellion of 1739. In a world premiere event the performance “will explore this little-known event in American history that would forever transform African American life and culture,” said Williams. Drumfolk will also have a ten-city national tour following the performance at Strathmore. More on Step Afrika!’s upcoming performances can be found here.


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