While most arts lovers are familiar with the performances and visual arts exhibits at Strathmore’s Music Center, Mansion and AMP, the organization’s multifaceted role in the county’s underserved communities is less well-known.
“As a leading arts organization in a community of more than one million people, Strathmore has a responsibility to connect with and stimulate creativity in all corners of the county,” said Strathmore CEO Monica Jeffries Hazangeles. That is accomplished through its Bloom programs, which, she explained, “take our resources beyond our campus and throughout the community to make the arts as vibrant and available to everyone as possible.”
What began as the East County Initiative “blossomed into Bloom about a year ago,” said Oyin Ogungbemile, Strathmore’s education manager. The name, she said, “was changed to reflect a shift from East County to all of Montgomery County. Bloom is growing into all parts of the county … we are blooming – by planting seeds in schools and communities. We provide the resources: the water and the sun.”
Bloom “encompasses a wide range of community-focused programs,” said Lauren Campbell, Strathmore’s director of education who has helped “set the strategy” for Bloom since she started at Strathmore in 2010. All its components, she pointed out, “have the feature of bringing incredibly high-level artists and programs to every member of our community. So that is really the spirit of what we do every day, just finding a way to get a room and a structure set up so that artists can come in to contact with the community and teach skills and provide inspiration. This happens in lots of different ways with different ages, different genres of art and music. “
Campbell cited the example of a recent set of Bloom programs with the Ronald K. Brown EVIDENCE, A Dance Company. “We had Ron Brown, the artistic director, and one of his incredible dancers provide three free workshops.” One was at Einstein High School in the evening for the general public, another at a middle school and a third with high-level dance students at CityDance [in residence at Strathmore].
“Our team got to witness this incredible spark of a moment of having world-class artists teach people, some of them from the public community had no experience and had never really done this before.,” Campbell recalled.
“That’s really how I think about the program: there’s this electrifying moment. And I’ve witnessed it many times,” she added. “People were just filled with joy. They felt confident. They were working on these beautiful nuances of movement based on Afro-Cuban movement and then combining with contemporary modern dance. And it was just magical.“
What Campbell thinks makes Bloom “special and unique are the long-lasting and authentic partnerships… co-creating ideas and programming with the people we’re serving, as partners,” she explained.
“It’s actually superior if we can take the time to have multiple sit-down meetings with community leaders, other organizations, parents, kids and start to generate ideas that way — and that does take a bit more time,” Campbell explained. “But what that yields is a sense of shared mission and shared vision for what we want to do together. And it also helps us be clearer about the ways that we can specifically support the arts ecosystem in creative ways.”
“Not only does it really improve the quality of relationships to spend that time, but also, it’s worth the sometimes slower process of building those relationships,” Campbell added. “ I’m going to go back to this point about lasting and authentic relationships. This is the drum I’m beating because I think it’s really, really important.”
Among those partnerships is Step Up East County that Bloom runs “in concert with” the professional dance company Step Afrika! at the Good Hope Community Center. “This partnership has afforded our youth with the opportunity to learn the art of stepping while teaching the principles of teamwork, commitment and discipline. It also allows the community to experience a different type of activity that wasn’t offered before. They learn and apply skills that transfer into real life and help prepare them for success,” observed Jennifer Boston, the parent liaison for Step Up.
Strathmore was involved with the community center from the start, Campbell noted. “We were there when it was designed to help make the center arts-friendly in terms of the tech and the setup,” she said. “And now we provide a modest amount of ongoing programming there, which has been successful. But it’s all in hand in hand with this community organization. It’s not just us over here trying to get people to come to us. We really want to be present where people live.”
Campbell remembers a 4-year-old girl who came to watch a sibling who was participating. “She just couldn’t sit still. So, she got up and she started doing the movement and over the course of a six-week class, she worked really hard. Her mom stood up from her seat and joined her, so she could help her daughter practice at home.”
“I went to the showcase performance and this little girl nailed it,” Campbell said. “She just was full of joy, even if the movements weren’t what you would look for in a professional dancer, we don’t care about that. We care that she was loving it and that she felt competent and confident in this feeling of mastery. You could just see it on her face.”
Campbell also recalls a colleague’s conversation with the mother of a middle schooler in Bloom’s new Latin Strings and Percussion Orchestra program. “Her mom shared that her daughter had been really struggling with being unmotivated and just emotionally down. … As soon as her daughter went to her first [session], this girl started practicing with discipline. And was so excited and just kept at it every day because she loved and connected to that music so much.”
As for the future, Campbell said, “I would love to do more for high school kids. We do a lot for the elementary level through our student concerts and the middle school through our step and our strings programs. High school kids are harder to program because they’re so busy. But I would love to come up with a multiyear program for high school kids who are really interested in the arts — and would benefit from access to professional, young local artists.”
“Montgomery County is among the most diverse [communities] in the whole country,” Campbell said. “We want people to feel like Strathmore is their center for the arts. Everyone who lives in our community deserves to feel like this is their home for the arts. … That feeling of true involvement and engagement and participation, both here and offsite, is so important to us.
“We know and we believe in the power of the arts,” Campbell said. “But when you see that impact beyond our office, beyond our buildings, actually landing with a family, you just know we’re going to keep doing this work as long as we can.”