By Stephanie Chase

Guest Columnist

New York, NY, USA


Jenny Bilfield is the President and CEO of Washington Performing Arts. Founded in 1965, it is based in Washington, D.C., and is a preeminent multi-disciplinary arts presenter, and it was the first organization of its kind to receive the coveted National Medal of Arts, conferred by President Obama at the White House. Under her leadership since 2013, Washington Performing Arts has grown as an important incubator of imaginative mainstage, community, and education programs and a commissioner of new works and productions.


Previously, she served as Artistic and Executive Director of Stanford Lively Arts and Artistic Director of its successor, Stanford Live, and her tenure there was distinguished by commissions, innumerable collaborations with faculty, students, and regional partners, and for her work on the Bing Concert Hall core team. As President of the North American division of international music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, Bilfield advanced transformative acquisitions and creative initiatives that grew revenue and profile for the composers and company. As Executive Director of the National Orchestral Association and founder of the New Music Orchestral Project, she launched forty-eight new American orchestral works through readings and premieres at Carnegie Hall and the Manhattan School of Music.


Jenny Bilfield is the recipient of awards and recognitions that include ASCAP’s Adventuresome Programming Award and the Helen M. Thompson Award for orchestra leadership from the League of American Orchestras. Since 2013, she has been recognized three times by Washingtonian magazine as one of the “Most Powerful Women” in Washington. She lives with her husband, the composer Joel Phillip Friedman – who is also interviewed for this issue of Stay Thirsty Magazine – in Washington, D.C.


STEPHANIE CHASE: You have been a performing arts administrator for quite a few years now. How did you arrive to this profession?


JENNY BILFIELD: I had a great summer internship in college to coordinate a Beethoven Festival at an arts organization on Long Island and this kindled my interest. Even though I was trained as a composer and pianist, and studied both disciplines seriously at the Manhattan School of Music’s Preparatory division and then at Binghamton University and the University of Pennsylvania, I loved synthesizing all of the elements that go into an event, more so than the solitary confinement of practicing and composing. So, Arts Management was a destination and not a “back up plan.” I’ve been very lucky to know exactly what I wanted to do from the age of 17!

Jenny Bilfield

STEPHANIE CHASE: It’s a small world; one of your piano teachers, Walter Ponce, is a longtime friend and colleague.


JENNY BILFIELD: Oh, wow, Walter is an extraordinary pianist and made a deep impact on me as a musician and pianist.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Yes, he is a wonderful artist! If you don’t mind, I have a quick Walter Ponce story: along with his wife Alma, who was a mezzo-soprano, and a couple other musicians, we were guest artists at a festival in Mexico where we performed in a lovely restored granary that had a tiny backstage room for the artists. Harold Schonberg – the fearsome head music critic for the New York Times – was invited there by the Artistic Director, who was hoping that his festival would get a nice mention in the Times in exchange for an all-expenses paid trip that included staying in a swanky resort hotel while we artists were housed much more modestly and had to pay for most of our meals. We were close to starting a concert when we realized that there was no page turner for Walter; the Artistic Director then said, “I’ll get Harold to do it!” So Harold Schonberg was shoveled into this small room with the rest of us and he started smoking a cigarette! Alma had to sing on the program but said nothing, of course. Afterward, Walter said that having to play with Schonberg sitting inches away was one of the great challenges of his career. By the way, Schonberg never wrote a single word about the Festival.


JENNY BILFIELD: Back in the days when critics travelled!



STEPHANIE CHASE: Besides this connection, I also learned about your work with the National Orchestral Association (NOA); coincidentally, I was the soloist for [founder and conductor] Leon Barzin’s last concert with them at Carnegie Hall and he became a mentor. Among other things, he introduced me to the great Arthur Grumiaux, who became my violin teacher. Another, weirder connection is that Barzin’s wife and her half-sister, Dina Merrill, sold Mar-A-Lago to Donald Trump!


JENNY BILFIELD: What a legacy the National Orchestral Association built, launching so many great artists and music. At one point over 40% of the musicians playing in Lincoln Center and Radio City Music Hall orchestras were NOA alums.


Speaking of the National Orchestral Association; that brought Joel and me together! I started the New Music Orchestral Project with the NOA and in our national competition, Joel was one of seventeen composers out of five hundred applicants to have his music selected for a reading by our Artistic and Music Director, Jorge Mester. He was then one of four composers whose music we programmed at Carnegie Hall. Paul Neubauer made his Carnegie Hall debut playing Joel’s Concerto (in the form of variations) for Viola and Orchestra. I always said I’d never marry or date a composer, and we became friends. And then, closer friends – and we were married in 1992.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I first met you very early in your career and got to know you a few years later when you were the executive director for the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, which is a summer chamber music series. Tell me about the Washington Performing Arts organization and its programs.


JENNY BILFIELD: Located in our nation’s capital, Washington Performing Arts is one of the most deeply loved arts presenters in the country, and its mission and history really inspired me to make the leap into the role of President and CEO. Our founder was a leader in desegregating the theaters in Washington, and coined the phrase “Everybody In, Nobody Out.” We use venues all around Washington, so we don’t have the overhead of managing one ourselves, which means that our funding goes entirely into programs, artists, arts education, plus great staffing to make all of this happen.

In addition to our featured performances we have our Mars Arts DC program, which is a community partnership and engagement program that we launched in 2014 because we wanted to shine an even brighter light on the enormous talent that exists in Washington’s creative community. Washington Performing Arts also has an impactful curricular arts partnership with the District of Columbia’s public schools by offering instrumental and cultural immersion programs throughout every Ward – and this means that we have programs in over 100 schools – pre-pandemic, of course.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I see that you offer a variety of programs from classical through jazz and world music.


JENNY BILFIELD: Yes, and we also have two Gospel Choirs called “Men and Women of the Gospel” and “Children of the Gospel,” founded nearly 30 years ago, which have launched numerous careers of opera singers, R&B and Gospel artists, musicologists, and music directors. We’re the only presenter in the U.S. with two resident Gospel Choirs!

"Why Do We Sing? - Children of the Gospel Choir - Washington Performing Arts


STEPHANIE CHASE: It’s clear that your programs have had a positive impact on many lives.


JENNY BILFIELD: Washington Performing Arts is all about impact and connection, collaboration and partnership, and our community of artists, supporters, and peers is robust. I wasn’t interested in just moving to a presenting organization per se, but to one whose work aligns with values and mission that are about connection, service and – always – excellence. I view it as hyper-local, aspirational, and connective.



STEPHANIE CHASE: So, despite the hard work required this is a gratifying job on many levels – but there must be some challenges.


JENNY BILFIELD: Indeed, there’s a great deal of fun and joy that comes with experiencing the art, collaborating with artists and peers, and seeing how transformative a performance can be for a participant or audience member. I believe in the mission deeply, which makes the work and very long hours meaningful; but in my role, I do sleep with one eye open – always waiting for the next urgent matter to arise and pull my attention in its direction. A sort of hyper-vigilance has set in over the course of my career, if you will, and perhaps this says is more about how I’m built as a leader and manager.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Would you describe your typical duties and activities with the Washington Performing Arts organization?


JENNY BILFIELD: I set the vision and tone for the organization and organizational culture, and I am the principal ambassador for the art and operations; these include fundraising, big artistic projects, and building partnerships, which need to be prioritized alongside strategic goals, financial parameters, and the regional landscape. My staff and I work towards ensuring the integrity of the Washington Performing Arts legacy and brand, and we always seek to honor and sustain our history of trust with artists, partners, and patrons. Our staff is now at twenty-two people – out of necessity we have kept some open positions vacant during the pandemic – and, given the economic turbulence that every arts organization is experiencing, we’ll remain at this level for a while. In addition to the staff, we have a cohort of resident artists who work with our Mars Arts DC program and Gospel Choirs.



STEPHANIE CHASE: The Washington Performing Arts organization is recognized for its diversity, its types of presentations and community outreach, and you mentioned founder Patrick Hayes and his motto, “Everybody In, Nobody Out.” How do you achieve this?


JENNY BILFIELD: This is a very important question – how we live up to the aspirations of Patrick Hayes’ original mantra. It has served as our north star, in many ways. Our presentations are increasingly varied – in terms of genres plus the cultural, racial, and ethnic background of artists – and accessible. We think about not only who is “in the room,” virtual or otherwise, but also who isn’t and why they aren’t; is it price or something about the experience that could be more welcoming?


I love that we are in so many neighborhoods and venues, because it keeps us nimble and real: having to adapt to multiple spaces – sometimes eighty in a year – means that we flex and produce in a variety of ways, and we rely upon our partners, hosts and super-skilled staff. This process is collaborative from the start and it’s where we forge real relationships.



STEPHANIE CHASE: It sounds like you have a large network of these and that they are vitally important to your work.


JENNY BILFIELD: I especially love our partnerships, whether with owner or founder-operated businesses or venues, because we discover ways of aligning values in optimistic, inclusive ways. Due to the pandemic, we will all need more of this sort of collaboration to restore the creative economy in DC through the re-opening phases and after. This often happens most effectively through coalitions and I’m excited that we are part of several. So, to the original question of how we achieve the level of diversity that’s true to Patrick Hayes’ mantra? We stay embedded and show up as good citizens of art and of community.



STEPHANIE CHASE: In “normal” times, what are you greatest and most common professional and personal challenges?


JENNY BILFIELD: Our greatest challenges are usually around sustaining and propelling our vision while working to build patron engagement and resources for current and future priorities. My personal challenge is that there is no work-life balance, just work-life meld. My professional and personal lives connect fluidly, which is wonderful, but neither Joel nor I ever fully disconnect from our work. And my role has both internal and external organizational demands, which I embrace and love. But it’s a challenge to disconnect and step back and build space and air into my schedule – yet I see the benefit of both to the longer-term, critical, and more reflective thinking required in my role.

Celebrating 50 Years of Washington Performing Arts



STEPHANIE CHASE: I think that for many people with careers in the arts it’s difficult to let go of the work, even for a weekend. What are the goals of your programs for young people?


JENNY BILFIELD: To feel that the arts are an avenue for self-understanding, well-being, self-expression, and a possible source of life work. Not every person shows up in the STEM subjects, hence the “a” added in for STEAM.



STEPHANIE CHASE: By STEM you mean a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, to which you add arts?


JENNY BILFIELD: Yes, and the kids have so much to deal with now that I fear for the lasting traumatic impact of this time and its effect on their future. To be able to turn to something that enables them to feel expressive, nourished, heard, seen, and which invites collaboration and connection with others – this is what is paramount in the arts: learning, nourishment, healing, and connection. And frankly, a strong sense of who all of us are.


So much of the current Black Lives Matter movement is palpable in what kids are listening to and are responding to in their creative work; to the extent art can be a capsule for a moment in history, this is a powerful take-away for students because it helps them to connect their power of self-expression with the arts. And they can often do this better than most adults in that they do it less self-consciously.



STEPHANIE CHASE: The art produced by kids, in whatever form, is often amazing; there’s a purity that comes from not knowing all the rules combined with little fear of making “a mistake.”


How has the pandemic affected your calendar and what is your guidance on reopening?


JENNY BILFIELD: We’re following CDC and local plus federal authorities on guidance. For now, all of our planned programs are online as part of our Home Delivery and forthcoming Home Delivery Plus digital programming, slated to debut in January. I’m excited about these, as each Home Delivery Plus package will be like a mini-digital residency, focusing on unique programs artists are creating for us and including some new formats such as a local “dance spotlight.” Our arts education programs have transitioned online as well, and you’ll see a lot of local D.C. talent in our programs.



STEPHANIE CHASE: That sounds very exciting and I imagine that the artists and the audiences look forward to these new opportunities. Are there some difficulties associated with this transition to digital programming and are you able to plan for a return to live events with an audience?


JENNY BILFIELD: We’re currently straddling the “all-digital, possible hybrid return” continuum; we’re not epidemiologists so we wouldn’t plan for a specific, dated return to performance venues. However, we are creating and filming our events in local venues so that they can be streamed with either no audience or with a small audience when it’s safe to do so. However, I have to say: digital is not inexpensive. In many ways, it’s more expensive than a live performance, plus revenue is lower in the absence of in-person seating and attendance. But a real upside is that it’s accessible to a wider range of audiences, both in format and price. We are very grateful to our board and contributors for supporting us with philanthropic gifts that make this possible!



STEPHANIE CHASE: It sounds like you can continue for quite a while with these new formats.


JENNY BILFIELD: We will absolutely return to live performance eventually, but we are striving to remain always vital and vibrant, on whatever platform exists. Our artists who have worked with us are excited about trying some new things together and we place high value being a great partner for our artists. This doesn’t change in the face of the pandemic, but it enables us to affirm this value, and to engage our community of patrons, audience members, and lifelong learners along the way.



STEPHANIE CHASE: How do you view the future of arts organizations? Is there a need for a major paradigm shift, and how might this look and be achieved?


JENNY BILFIELD: In my opinion, any organization that doesn’t use this as an opportunity to re-think its operation – as well as its commitment to equity and inclusion – is missing the boat. There is nothing more important than building relationships with folks in our community and to define that community as broadly as possible. At Washington Performing Arts, our community comprises artists, audiences, lifelong learners, and partners.

Jenny Bilfield receiving the National Medal of Arts for
Washington Performing Arts from President Barak Obama


STEPHANIE CHASE: What guidance would you give other arts presenters during this uniquely challenging time?


JENNY BILFIELD: I hope that every organization is also taking a hard look at equity within their team, board, performance schedule, and partnerships. And importantly, planning a response that is action-focused and scaffolded with help from experienced facilitators who are compensated appropriately for their work!



STEPHANIE CHASE: You mentioned that some of the kids in your programs are creating art in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which resulted from the many dreadful events involving violent police actions towards Black persons as well as general inequities. What can be done to relieve the perception that many arts organizations are the domains of elitist Whites?


JENNY BILFIELD: There is significant structural racism within the arts, something I came to see and understand more clearly in the past six years; once you recognize it, you see it everywhere. And at the same time, progress, and intentional efforts around change. But instead of “admiring the problem” as a friend once described it, our field simply has to get on with the work; it has the capacity to evolve over time but we have to begin somewhere, and this is the work of the entire institution, its staff and board. I see tremendous progress in our field and I’m proud of where we’ve gotten to at Washington Performing Arts. However, I recognize that we are on a continuum of change and evolution, so we are still working at it and building architecture and structure to hold ourselves accountable.



STEPHANIE CHASE: On the topic of accountable: financial considerations are one of the great limiting factors of arts presenters in that ticket sales almost never meet the actual production cost of an event, and the organizations rely heavily on donor support. What would be your dream resolution of this problem?


JENNY BILFIELD: More incentives around philanthropy and government investment in the arts, and more creative collaborations across sectors.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I’d love to see these as well but, unfortunately, many wealthy persons view arts organizations as a charity and our government will need a major shift back towards supporting the arts, both financially and symbolically such as presenting concerts again at the White House. But Washington Performing Arts looks like a great model for creative collaboration.


What are you looking forward to in, I hope, the near future?


JENNY BILFIELD: A big dance party to live music!



STEPHANIE CHASE: That sounds like the best kind of celebration! Thank you for your work and for sharing your insights with us.




Jenny Bilfield

Washington Performing Arts

Stephanie Chase


Stephanie Chase

Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as “one of the violin greats of our era” (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with 200 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their “elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination” (Boston Globe), “stunning power” (Louisville Courier-Journal), “matchless technique” (BBC Music Magazine), and “virtuosity galore” (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Recent concert appearances include music festivals in Newport, RI, Mt. Desert, ME, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Bargemusic, Music in Context (Houston), and as soloist with the New York Scandia Symphony.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.