Jenny Live in D.C. at WPAS
Just being around Jenny Bilfield, the new president and CEO of the Washington Performing Arts Society, you get the sense she’s the kind of person that can fill and command a room, whether it’s a board room, a concert hall stage, or a small downtown D.C. coffee shop on this occasion.
Although she’s been around less than a year, Bilfield, the artistic director of Stanford Live at Stanford University in California since 2006, she already sounds like a Washington D.C. booster. That, you suspect, comes out of her deep appreciation and sense of place. A New Yorker, she acknowledged that her work and time at Stanford changed and enriched her, and that’s exactly where she’s coming from in her approach to her new job—taking over the reigns of an organization with a long (48 years) history as a premier world arts presenter and arts educator. She comes across as accessible, really smart, unpretentious, and probably knows more about most things you’d care to talk about in conversation.
“This is such a terrific, unique place,” she said. “We [composer husband Joel Philip Friedman, 12-year-old daughter Hallie, a rescue dog and a few parrots) live right next to the zoo. We can walk to the zoo.” This is said with all the verve of a genuine enthusiast, a woman who can generate enthusiasm for just about anything. She is seen as, has a reputation for, and talks a lot about risk taking. In terms of classical music, for instance, she’s known for a passionate commitment to encouraging new work and compositions, in addition to holding fast to established artists and work which is the hallmark of most presenters and their seasons. “If you look at this year’s Stanford Live season, some of which I’m responsible for, if you run across some names that you may not be familiar with, I’m probably responsible,” she said.
She seems to have gotten a handle on the unique qualities of Washington pretty quickly. “You have a rich and diverse performance art world, so many venues from the big to the small, it’s full of opportunities to do many unique things. You have a city that’s rich in neighborhoods too, and it’s full of gifted artists that work and perform right here. You can draw from that. You have unique opportunities for arts education. You have the embassies and the whole international framework to draw on.” Reginald Van Lee, executive vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton and chairman of WPAS’s Board of Directors said that “Jenny is a visionary with a proven track record of success who is passionate about the arts and their role in the community. She is the right person to lead WPAS’s new strategic plan and build upon our core strengths: rich, educational and community engagement programs, the nurturing of young talent, and presenting the finest artist of our classical, jazz, dance, and world music performances.”
Upon the announcement of her appointment in January, Bilfield said that “WPAS is an essential, deeply valued anchor of the Capital region’s cultural scene and has earned a sterling reputation as a premier American arts presenter, and an engine of high-impact arts education programs and alliances. I feel the same rush of energy and optimism that I experienced when I joined Stanford University in 2006.”
That rush, that energy is on full display, when she’s touting the new WPAS season, tellingly built around the theme of “The City Is Our Stage,” the neighborhoods in the city, the diversity, the opportunities for expansion and new partnerships. “We hope to engage audiences and artists for the long term, and get people to participate in the arts, not just by going but by being a part of the whole,” she said. “Audience here are very committed, very smart and intelligent, and receptive, I think, to new forms and ideas.”
At Stanford, she transformed Stanford Live, from being a university presenter to a producing organization along the lines and size of WPAS, and was also instrumental in bringing the vision for the Bing Concert Hall to fruition.
“The challenges here are not the same,” she said. “WPAS exists in a unique place and is a unique organization, with unique opportunities.” She provided a hint of how she might approach her new tasks, in a kind of farewell interview with the San Jose Mercury News. “Ultimately,” she said then, “specificity and sense of place are central for me. My litmus test is that our vision, mission and programs need to reflect the unique DNA of the organization and its community. …Washington Performing Arts Society has had a significant impact upon the cultural life of Washington D.C., from nurturing new talent to substantive arts education, and serving as a destination for outstanding performers at venues around the city.”
It’s obvious that she’s already gotten the vibe of the city’s cultural DNA. It would appear that it matches hers.