Formerly artistic and executive director of Stanford Live at Stanford University, Jenny Bilfield took over the helm of the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPA) almost two years ago. MyLittleBird contributor Ellyn Wexler talked to her about how the job and move to D.C. are going.
MLB: Now that you are approaching two years as president and CEO of WPA, have your expectations upon taking the job been met? How have your goals for the organization adjusted?
JB: I’d say that my expectations have been completely exceeded…and they were pretty high to begin. I’ve come to truly understand and appreciate the impact that WPA has had in the D.C. community, and on a national arts playing field. I’ve met people whose lives have been literally transformed — through the performances they’ve attended, the programs their children have participated in and the people they’ve met through this organization. I’ve heard from artists whose careers have been altered through the nurturing and platform we’ve provided. And also, I’ve seen that there’s significantly more room for growth, collaboration, adventuresome programming and creativity on a scale I didn’t expect to see or tap into so early on. I’m doing some of my best creative work here. And I feel well supported within my team, board and community of peers. People are driven here and I find that my job is a great fit for my workaholic personality. I love being back in a city, where people are working to make an impact…locally, nationally, street by street. Very powerful.
MLB: How did your experience as artistic and executive director of Stanford Live at Stanford University translate to WPA?
JB: Stanford students were a priority for us — engaging them as co-programmers, potential audience, intellectual partners…and as future leaders. D.C. is filled with smart, young, ambitious people…there’s an immediate opportunity to translate engagement efforts from Stanford to here, as we build an audience for the future. At Stanford, I thought a lot about programmatic differentiation — the ‘why’ of coming to a performance…and what we would be offering students and our adult audiences that would compel them to come to a live event. This vigilance translates easily to D.C. — with so many cultural options and so little time, people need to make decisions based upon affinity, interest, specialness. Our role is to underscore why the live experience is meaningful…and to work with our artists to ensure that programs feel, and are, special and specific. Finally, the sense of play, invention, curiosity is something I have always valued — and these qualities were very much a component of the Silicon Valley and Stanford communities. Energizing these qualities here, and tapping into communities that embrace and value them, is high on my to-do list both programmatically and in terms of audience development and reach.
MLB: Has your affinity for contemporary music and artists changed the organization?
JB: I’ve amped up our commission projects significantly and quickly secured funding to do so. There’s support here, and a growing audience appetite. I’ve done so in tandem with artists who are connected to D.C., connected with WPA and for whom these projects are important ‘signature’ activities. The organization has long invested in contemporary, up-and coming-artists — our Hayes Piano Series is just that. Transferring that sense of investment to commissioning seems natural. And having the artists as our partners in this effort makes the initiative powerful and well supported.
MLB: What WPA initiatives have you continued? And what new ones have you initiated?
JB: The great classical programming, educational programs, gospel choirs and other core programs absolutely continue — I’ve added important refinements in collaboration with my team here, and established key strategic initiatives to grow support and depth. I’ve developed special additional programs that focus on collaboration, deeper investment in and development of key genres, programs. An Innovation Fund for new work (commissions, projects); a Mars Urban Arts Initiative designed to connect urban amateur artists with main stage artists; special collaborations that accentuate American history and cultural assets — our Marian Anderson Of Thee We Sing program in 2014 that engaged choirs from around D.C., artists from all genres (including Jessye Norman and Dionne Warwick) in collaboration with BET/Centric; SHIFT, a partnership with The Kennedy Center to showcase American orchestras in three annual, one-week festivals beginning in 2017.
MLB: How has your life changed, by moving to in the D.C. area? Your family’s?
JB: This has been a great move for everyone in our family! For me — I love being back in a city — the diverse community, the sense of an evolving landscape, living in a more densely populated environment — has been great. I’ve become more actively involved in advocacy…nationally, and locally. I’m on the Steering Committee for ArtsActionDC, an advocacy group comprising arts organizations from around the city (circa 60 of us in the big group — focusing on increasing visibility and financial support for the growing arts and creative community here) and have met very ambitious, smart, strategic thinkers who are building a strong platform for the arts — both in local government and within agencies that fund the arts. Diving into the economic and urban planning aspects of arts support is fascinating and topical — and a crash course in civic engagement. I’m also a member of the Federal City Council, which is stewarded by former Mayor Anthony Williams. Members of my board of directors — chaired by the one-of-a-kind Reginald Van Lee, executive vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton — are leading lights in the D.C. business community and in government affairs, as well as philanthropy — so I’m drawn into work in these arenas and have learned a great deal in the process. Discovering interests that were heretofore untapped and unrecognized! I’ve also loved reconnecting with friends, many of whom are work colleagues as well. It felt like ‘home’ very quickly.
My husband, composer Joel Phillip Friedman, has found many like-minded artists — performers, composers, arts managers — who have warmly embraced his work and have commissioned/performed it as well. He loves teaching at Georgetown University, and he’s writing some of his most beautiful music here. Our daughter, Hallie, is 14 and loves attending Edmund Burke School — a nurturing and challenging school (a good balance!) and a great teacher/family cohort. She also participates avidly in the Levine School’s musical theater and vocal programs. Our parrots are neutral on the move, though we’ve become quite the attraction in our apartment building. And our dog, well, she’s a sun-worshipping little Chihuahua-terrier mix with very little fur, so she suffers visibly in the snow. But her winter ‘wardrobe’ is ‘snappy,’ as my late father would say.
MLB: Have you engaged in the community of women leading arts organizations in the region?
JB: This was one of the truly cool ‘aha’ moments moving to D.C.: meeting so many extraordinary women in leadership positions, both in the arts and in other businesses. Super smart, quick-witted, warm, collaborative, welcoming. Very, very impressive, and from a variety of diverse backgrounds. They are heroes, role models and wise guides. Too numerous to mention, which says a lot about the quality and quantity of women making a major impact here. From arts CEO’s to journalists to philanthropists to civic leaders. Pretty stunning.
— Ellyn Wexler
Ellyn Wexler is a frequent MyLittleBird contributor.