Making the Leap to Center Stage
Rising artists step into Strathmore’s spotlight.
by Stav Ziv
When Allison Miller and her collaborators finished their performance of Rivers in Our Veins at the Music Center last winter, spectators rose to their feet in decisive celebration.
“It was an incredible performance, and the audience was completely with her—full standing ovation immediately. It was brilliant,” says Joi Brown, Strathmore’s artistic director and vice president of programming. Some patrons and donors later sought Brown and her colleagues out to tell them it had been the best concert of the year. “That was incredibly gratifying,” she says, especially considering it was one of hundreds of shows on a celebrity-studded calendar, and marked a rising artist’s leap into the so-called “big room.”
Miller—a jazz drummer, composer, and teacher—has typically shared her work in smaller clubs. And while she’s performed in large venues backing major artists such as Ani DiFranco, Miller and her own creative projects hadn’t been as front and center. “She was not a stranger to large concert halls,” says Brown, “but having the focus be on her and her own composition was not typical.”
A few times a year, Strathmore puts its full weight behind a rising artist who’s on that cusp and ready for the jump. “It’s a manifestation of our understanding that we need to be more involved in the pipeline and the process, and not just wait for the outcome,” Brown says. “There’s so much responsibility on artists to find their own path, to get their own resources.” But as a maturing institution, she explains, Strathmore also has a role and responsibility to help artists rise.
The willingness of patrons to explore art that’s unfamiliar to them makes it possible for Strathmore to invest in under-the-radar artists. “We’re fortunate to be programming in such a diverse county with so many bright, curious, open-minded audiences,” says Brown.
Fatoumata Diawara premieres this fall in the Music Center.
READING THE TEA LEAVES
Finding the right artist at the right moment can feel a little bit like reading the tea leaves. Brown and her colleagues on the programming and marketing teams look at the trajectory of artists, many of whom they follow for years, and ask questions like: Are they drawing larger audiences in certain markets? Are they getting press coverage? Is the project itself physically big enough to command the room? Does it have a compelling concept with a broad enough appeal?
And then they ask themselves if they can give a particular artist and project exactly what they need to support them on the big stage. “We make sure the resources we provide can really move the needle for the artist and provide traction for their next steps,” Brown says.
CREATING CUSTOMIZED CAMPAIGNS
Every rising artist needs something different in their transition to bigger rooms. That’s why each outreach campaign is creative, grassroots, and completely customized. “It becomes a 360-degree approach—what are all of the different angles we have to connect this to the community and find the audience?” Brown says.
In the case of Allison Miller and Rivers in Our Veins, there was the climate and water angle (which led to outreach and partnerships with local riverkeepers such as the Anacostia Watershed Society and Potomac Riverkeeper Network), the successful-artist-returns-home-to-premiere-her-new-project angle, and the education and mentorship angle (which allowed Strathmore to bring Miller in for sessions with its Artist in Residence program).
Makaya McCraven makes his Music Center debut in early 2024.
Strathmore will launch a similarly tailored strategy in support of another rising artist slated to play the big room in February 2024. Drummer, producer, and composer Makaya McCraven is bringing In These Times to the Music Center with more than a dozen collaborators, including a horn section and a harp. The campaign will lean into the social justice realm, since his work is a reflection on biracial experiences, and tap into the progressive jazz community, where McCraven is becoming something of a legend.
OFFERING A MEANINGFUL BOOST
When all is said and done, these high-touch campaigns send the message to artists that “we believe in them and are willing to help them stretch to reach the spotlight” Brown says. “We decided to get involved at a point where the work was harder and there were more questions than answers.”
It was an unequivocal success in Miller’s case. “Because of Strathmore’s commitment to support and develop new bodies of work, I was able to fully realize my multisensory conservation suite,” says Miller, noting that her ties to the organization run deep. “I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to present on such a renowned stage. Strathmore and I are chosen family now.”
Miller also caught the attention of other presenters, who will give her the chance to build and iterate and bring Rivers in Our Veins to new audiences. “Since the Strathmore premiere, the bookings have increased and the buzz around the project has grown,” she says.
Strathmore took a risk on her and gave her the financial, production, and creative support she needed, Miller says. “This is how art and culture carry on.”
Thank you to our EXCITE! Fund donors for enabling Strathmore to invest so generously in supporting rising artists and new work: Julie & John Hamre, Kathleen Knepper, Sachiko Kuno Foundation/S&R Evermay, and the Estates of Joseph & Judy Antonucci, Daniela S. Gerhard, Henry J. Schalizki & Robert D. Davis.