From left to right: Stephanie Aboukasm, Kevin Snyder, and Diana Ezerins

Bernstein Family Foundation has supported the globally-revered institution, The John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts, for many years now. As a hub of the arts, culture and education, the Center has used its standing in the community to expand its reach and engage in more entrepreneurial programs. In order to get a deeper understanding of the programmatic support Bernstein provides, I sat down with 3 members of its esteemed staff: Kevin Snyder, Assistant Manager of Corporate and Foundation Relations, Diana Ezerins, Artistic Programming Manager, and Stephanie Aboukasm, Assistant of Corporate and Foundation Relations.

Let’s start off with talking about what support Bernstein provides to the Kennedy Center.

Kevin – Bernstein jumped back on board with The Kennedy Center with a $15,000 grant to support the Millennium Stage, particularly with community engagement based programs which we refer to as ‘out of the box’ programs. This feeds into a model now known as ‘responsive arts’, where these programs will be more regularly tied into Millennium Stage and Kennedy Center programming throughout the year. In the past, Bernstein actually supported the Center’s education programs, so this is somewhat of a new direction for the Foundation. We are working to find the best way to present authentic experiences to the community based on what they want.

Stephanie – Although we started working here roughly a year ago, these ‘out of the box’ programs have included ‘Look Both Ways’ in 2012, ‘One Mic’ in 2014, and ‘Finding a Line’ in 2015. They have been ongoing and it has been an evolving process.

Engaging non-traditional audiences is key to expanding the reach of the arts, could you tell me a bit more about how you are working to do so with these programs?

Kevin – I think the biggest thing you can attest to this is the ‘creative ecosystem’, which is a unique style of programming that the Center uses specifically for the community engagement team. We have a network of local artists, activists, educators and creative minds in the D.C. area that we meet with when we want to test a new idea or go in a new direction. Whether it be related to hip-hop or skateboarding, we meet with the community and the experts in that field, and they advise us on how to do the project well. We go directly to the source.

Stephanie – This ‘creative ecosystem’ essentially acts like a network of consultants for us.

Kevin – With our skateboarding project, ‘Finding a Line’, we had skate-shops involved all the way up in Baltimore- this project had such a large, unprecedented reach. There was a huge sense of investment from the community because they helped create this. They were just as tied to it as we were- the most powerful events come about because of this relationship, and this truly diversifies our audience.

The Kennedy Center is both a nationally and globally admired institution, how are you using such an iconic space to invite new imagination?

Kevin – We are doing so simply through the creative ecosystem and involving the community in a well-recognized institution. Being able to leverage that, and to make the community better see their culture and arts in this national institution is a really mutually beneficial relationship.

Diana – Collaboration is key to inspire new programming. The 3 pillars of programming in my department are that they are community-driven, participation-based, and they take place in non-traditional spaces, so not in the theater. One example is ‘Social Dances’, which happens pretty regularly on Millennium Stage and gets people involved in the arts. When we were building the bowl for ‘Finding a Line’, we hired a sculpture professor from George Mason, and brought in fifteen different skateboarding crews from the D.C. area to put the project all together. ‘One Mic’ was an awesome yet super challenging event, but it turned out to be really great. Afterwards, all the partners expressed how appreciative they were of the collaborative process- they all want it to continue. I’m not certain if that will be the roundup of hip-hop at The Kennedy Center, but I don’t think it should be because, actually, everyone in the community loves ‘One Mic’. It was a great convergence of the hip hop culture, dance, muralism, knowledge of self, the whole MC-ing culture, and break dancing.

The Kennedy Center is currently working on an expansion project- do you believe it will generate a whole new pool of participants? Are you gearing these ‘out of the box’ programs towards the Center’s renewal?

Diana – As the expansion is underway, we have set in motion planning for activities that will take place once it is complete. The project will provide us with 9 additional performance venues. We can’t wait for people to be down there, we want people to be active. We are working with our partners to start the planning on how we are going to use these different spaces, which is tricky.

How are you harnessing the power of new technologies to create relevant and accessible channels of engagement?

Kevin – As a whole, we are trying to expand our digital world with accessibility as a primary goal, and we are exploring apps and those sorts of things. The Center is currently undergoing an organization-wide strategic planning where it is coming up with a set of goals related to accessibility, our digital platforms being at the forefront of that. It’s definitely something we are all thinking about.

Stephanie – It was really interesting with ‘Finding A Line’ and seeing all the social media engagement by audiences. Based on that major response, we have a good shot moving forward to expand more digitally.

What do you find has been the most rewarding outcome of these projects?

Stephanie – Kevin and I have been here a little less than a year now, and I think the project that has been closest to us was ‘Finding a Line’. We started our jobs here with it, and we watched it evolve from this idea to something that was so much bigger than any of us would have ever imagined. The community was so excited about it; people were talking about it everywhere. It brought in a whole new set of people, a whole new audience that sees us in such a different light. I think that’s really, really important in terms of harnessing and keeping an audience base coming back, and hopefully we will be able to keep doing this with these types of programs.

Kevin – So many people associate The Kennedy Center with opera, theatre and orchestras and the idea that you need to wear a suit or a tuxedo when you come here. With projects like ‘Finding A Line’, we had people coming in with cargo shorts, Vans shoes and t-shirts. It’s so great to see that audience brought in and demonstrate that this is not just an institution for the ‘high arts’. Witnessing the organization embrace its mandate to not only reflect traditional arts of the past, but all arts of the present, has been really rewarding.

Diana – I definitely think our community endeavors have been the most rewarding. ‘One Mic’ and ‘Finding A Line’ have really given us so much street cred. There is this conception that community-based arts means it is of lower quality, which is simply not the case. There are different kinds of art, and there is a different grading scale for all of those things. We have gained a lot of respect in the community. Since executing those two projects, we have continued to work with many of those partners, and this collaboration continues to feed our programming.

So, what’s on the horizon for 2016?

Diana – One of the big things that we are going to reveal at our Season Announcement in a couple of weeks is that we are bringing ‘ We will be continuing our work with all of our partners in the creative ecosystem that made projects like ‘Finding a Line’ and ‘One Mic’ happen. We are primarily focused on populating Millennium Stage programming, developing new work and being in discussions to plan the expansion project. We are working to bring back our skateboarding project and ‘One Mic’. Later in the year, there will be various festivals we have a hand in, including the DC Funk Parade, which celebrates and showcases the history of the D.C. art scene.