This story features BlackRock Center for the Arts. Learn more about this organization and view upcoming events here.
There’s a new executive director in town. Meet Alyona Ushe, Germantown’s BlackRock Center for the Arts’ tour de force. Ushe jumped into the role with both feet in November with a mission to put what she calls “the crown jewel of the UpCounty” on the map.
Ushe comes to BlackRock from South Florida where she was president and CEO of Cultural Arts Creatives, an organization that programs and manages artistic events, and before that, the New Orleans Opera Association. But she began her career in Arlington, Virginia, in 1992 as the founder and executive director of Classika Theater.
CultureSpotMC.com spoke with Ushe to find out what patrons can expect in front of and behind the curtain under her direction–and what swimming has to do with her success.
Welcome! What brought you here from sunny Florida?
I started my professional career in the Washington, D.C. Metro area by co-founding Classika Theatre with Inna Shapiro in Arlington, Virginia, which later merged with Synetic Theater. After spending a few years in New Orleans and close to eight in South Florida, I knew it was time to come home. To me, this area is unparalleled to any other place in the world, with so many opportunities to continue my passion for innovation, arts and culture. As soon as I decided to move, I saw the job listing for BlackRock and the rest, as they say, is history.
Where did you grow up and what sort of studies led you to this line of work?
Well, I was born in Leningrad, my family immigrated to Chicago when I was 11, but most of my adult life was spent right here in the Washington metropolitan area. I studied political science at University of Maryland in College Park, and had my eye on law school before the arts completely consumed me. I got involved with an artistic director who wanted to launch a theater company based on the Russian traditions. She happened to be my mom, and I wanted to help her out while continuing to look for a “real” job. We started Classika Theatre…and I never looked back. I went on to run the New Orleans Opera Association, programmed and managed a 3,000-seat amphitheater, opened a $20 million cultural center and launched a number of smaller venues, which leads me to believe that perhaps a career in law was not meant for me.
What’s on your “punch list” for BlackRock?
BlackRock is celebrating our 15th anniversary. It’s an incredible milestone, with rich history and enormous success presenting programming in all genres: theater, music, dance, film, multidisciplinary arts and arts education. Not only do we plan to build on our accomplishments, but also, we will develop new initiatives and programs that reflect the diversity of our community.
For example, next month we launch our new signature series called B-Rock Fridays. This musical series will present award-winning musicians in a jazz club-like environment. Coming next is the B-World Music Series, presenting international cultural programming.
We are also determined to position BlackRock as a significant economic driver for the UpCounty. Through collaborations and partnerships with local businesses, educational institutions, libraries, faith-based organizations and community groups, we are committed to bringing our community together and to increasing economic development and quality of life for our residents, UpCounty employees and visitors.
BlackRock as an “economic driver?” Can you give a few examples of what that means?
We are committed to bringing our entire region together through the arts. Whether by creating personalized packages with hotels, restaurants and service providers, expanding on our staycations and “date night” offerings, implementing discounts to patrons of local businesses or developing signature festivals that promote regional artists, business establishments, community organizations and tourism, BlackRock is a creative force in the UpCounty.
In addition, according to Americans for the Arts’ economic impact calculator, BlackRock already contributes over $1.7 million to economic growth and we are determined to make that impact larger.
Are you a performer yourself?
My art is behind the scenes. I love putting together the jigsaw puzzle pieces that enhance cultural institutions, assist regional artists and develop powerful collaborations.
What is your favorite art form?
My mother was a lead actress in one of the best theaters in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, so I grew up backstage and have an incredible affinity for theater. However, I have an enormous appreciation for all art forms. The arts challenges and inspires our view of the world, our interpretation of our surroundings and, of course, it’s the only universal language.
How do you respond to comments/suggestions from ticketholders? Is it hard to please all the people all the time?
Our main responsibility is to our ticketholders. In my curtain speech, I always emphasize that this is their cultural center and that I work solely for them. In addition, our playbills include a brief survey and I encourage everyone to share their ideas with me. My job is to present diverse programming so that there will be something for everyone.
What does a day-in-your-life at BlackRock look like?
It’s extremely different from day-to-day. BlackRock’s staff and board of trustees are absolutely incredible. Sharing ideas and getting input from them has been invaluable. Meeting with various members of the community and building partnerships and collaborations is very exciting. The most rewarding part for me is developing, launching and growing new initiatives and anticipating how they are going to affect the quality of life in the community.
Did you shadow the out-going director for a period of time? How did you get up-to-speed on your new job?
My predecessor left this past summer, so it was sink or swim for me. Thankfully I am an avid swimmer.
Do you feel the arts community is growing in Montgomery County?
Absolutely. Both the creative community and the appreciation for the arts are growing. That’s why I am developing a creative consortium initiative at BlackRock — a group of like-minded, committed artists and cultural groups who would want to make BlackRock not just their home, but their own creative playground; resident companies and creative innovators working side by side to develop relevant programming and join collaborations.
As we explore future initiatives, I would love to hear from our own artistic and cultural community throughout the Washington Metro area. So, if any of you, readers, fit these categories, please reach out to me asap!
Please fill in the blank: You are great for this job because ….
I live and breathe the arts, and it appears that my passion and commitment to it is contagious. The language of the arts is universal and by infusing it into everyone’s lives, we begin to build bridges to compassion, understanding and appreciation for one another. I am extremely committed to making BlackRock a nurturing home for regional artists and supporting the phenomenal talent we have in our own backyard.
For information on BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown, visit www.blackrockcenter.org, call 301-528-2260, or view their upcoming events on CultureSpotMC here.