Category Archives: Levitt in America

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Tonight, the Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series continues to bring joy to music lovers across the country with an electric performance by folk-rock music duo, HuDost. Co-presented by Catamount Arts, the nonprofit behind the Levitt AMP St. Johnsbury Music Series, tonight’s virtual concert celebrates the ongoing collaborative effort to strengthen and unify the community of St. Johnsbury through the power of music. Be sure to tune in at 8pm ET/5PM PT at https://levittamp.org/virtual! Continue reading

Tonight’s Levitt AMP virtual show brings the bright, buoyant sounds of Appalachia straight to you! Tune in to experience an incredible evening of music curated by the team behind the Levitt AMP Berea Music Series, including a performance by headlining act The Possum Queens. This all-female ‘Kentucky Old-Time’ quartet “got down the fiddle, rosined up the bow [and] dusted off the cobwebs” to record tonight’s lively virtual performance at Berea’s newly launched Rebel Rebel Studio and Lounge, a multi-use creative space co-founded by Levitt AMP Berea organizer Ali Blair with photographer Erica Chambers. The virtual concert will also feature local favorites Tyler Devall and Corey Shenk. Be sure to tune in at 8pm ET/5pm PT at levittamp.org/virtual!

A small town with trailblazing roots

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Berea College students, faculty and staff joining 25,000 other demonstrators in the last phase of the March on Montgomery from Selma, Ala., on March 25, 1965; Photo courtesy of Berea College, Special Collections & Archives

Blair first crossed paths with The Possum Queens fiddler Anna Harrod at a local backyard bonfire, surrounded by the joyous live folk and bluegrass music of Berea College professors and student musicians. The trailblazing Berea College has shaped the surrounding community since it was founded in 1855 by minister and abolitionist John G. Fee, as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South. Fee and his colleagues put their lives on the line to remove barriers to higher education. Since 1892, the boldly inclusive institution has also provided a high-quality education to its students—many of whom are from underserved areas of Southern Appalachia—completely free of charge. Driven by the homegrown talent of students and their families, the school has developed a phenomenal artisan craft program, laying the groundwork for Berea’s wide-reaching reputation as the ‘Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky.’ Every year, lifelong learners flock to Berea from far and wide for the city’s summer ‘Festival of Learnshops’ and winter ‘Make it, take it, give it!”—both rooted in artisan craft workshops.

Only 45 minutes south of Lexington, Ky., the town of Berea, Ky., is a quickly growing community of nearly 16,000 people that has held onto its ‘small town feel.’ Boasting a renowned higher learning institution, a vibrant artisan craft scene, a growing commitment to sustainable living and a legacy of social justice, Berea attracts more new residents each year—growing by nearly 12% since 2010 and making it one of the fastest growing towns in the state.

Building an inclusive space

Inspired by the utopian ideals that shaped Berea College, in 2014 the nonprofit Berea Arts Council began teaming up with local events producer Ali Blair to bring affordable arts experiences to the Berea community. “We wanted to celebrate those ideals that the city and the college was founded on,” explains Blair, “and stand up for those ideals now, in a time…that a lot of people would like to see them stamped out.” Since Berea Arts Council’s founding in 1986, the nonprofit has worked to create year-round, accessible experiences for people to come together and celebrate the city’s rich diversity through the arts, with programming like the free, family-friendly First Friday Berea monthly block party, which began in 2014 and celebrated Berea’s heritage of Appalachian activism, community and culture through diverse musical programming and vendor booths featuring local foods, crafts and services. In looking to replace lost funds for the series, the team came across the Levitt AMP grant opportunity in 2016 and thought it would be a natural fit. They appreciated Levitt’s commitment to showcasing artists of all backgrounds and genres and introducing listeners to other cultures in the process, and recognized that a Levitt AMP grant would allow them to elevate their series and tap into a national network of knowledge and resources.

What’s more, the Levitt AMP grant could help them activate an underused downtown area. In 1996, a hurricane had left a devastating path of destruction through the heart of the town, damaging around 1,000 homes and several artisan shops. When the area was rebuilt, it was built with the intention of celebrating the town’s craft heritage with a downtown “Old Town” Artisan Village, a cultural district for shopping and studio space for working artists. While First Friday Berea brought attention and activation to the Artisan Village, it had yet to realize its full potential as a thriving hub for art, food music and community.

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Photos from the Levitt AMP Berea Music Series; Photos by Erica Chambers

The inaugural Levitt AMP Berea Music Series in 2017 drew hundreds of concertgoers into Berea’s Artisan Village each week. And over the 10 weeks, the series piqued the interest of  entrepreneurs and restaurant owners, who expressed interested in opening businesses in “Old Town” because of the Levitt AMP series. New businesses and invaluable new site improvements (like an ADA compliant sidewalk) have continued to pop up around the concert site. Perhaps most importantly, over the years, the series has brought together concertgoers of all ages, backgrounds, abilities, incomes and education levels to create one of the city’s most inclusive spaces, where all members of the multi-faceted community are welcomed. The concerts have also helped to expand the work and impact of the Berea Arts Council as a whole. “Levitt AMP has allowed us to reach new people and serve new folks in the community,” explains Blair, “and hopefully has really increased our relevancy to the wider community.”

#BuildingBerea during a global pandemic

The Berea Arts Council is embracing this period of transition, looking at how they as an organization are serving the community and assessing how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the evolving needs of the people they’re serving. “We’re trying to re-envision and reimagine those offerings” says Blair. They have already shifted their community art gallery to a virtual gallery—where they will feature their upcoming ‘Young at Art’ and ‘Teen Art’ shows—and have converted their street-side windows into a mini-gallery. Exciting new works—like those created as part of Julie Struck’s youth empowerment and mental health awareness project Hold Up Hold On! will be installed to continue uplifting passersby during this time of transition.

In the spirit of building a new future together, Blair will be pursuing a crowd-sourced initiative thanks to support from a Levitt Foundation Bridge Grant, inspired by ideas from the community. One of Blair’s most commonly used hashtags is #BuildingBerea and she plans to call upon community members to do just that. Residents will be invited to submit innovative and interesting project ideas that strengthen, uplift, connect and inspire friends, families and neighbors during this challenging time. Blair is particularly interested in engaging local youth. “There are a lot of things that they’re missing out on right now,” she says. Reflecting on her own graduating eighth grader’s missed graduation celebration, she hopes to “give them something to be excited about,” by empowering youth to envision and help create meaningful community-building experiences for Berea.

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The Possum Queens; Photo by Erica Chambers

While the way in which we gather has shifted, organizations like the Berea Arts Council are still hard at work to create inclusive and inspiring spaces to celebrate the beauty and strength of human expression. Tonight is no exception. Join us at 8pm ET/5pm PT for a taste of authentic, homegrown Central Kentucky folk and bluegrass and Appalachian artistry straight out of Berea, Ky. Tune in at levittamp.org/virtual!

Tune into tonight’s Levitt AMP virtual concert to experience the critically-acclaimed soulstress Julie Black, co-presented by the Marion Cultural Alliance (MCA) and the City of Ocala—the dynamic team behind the Levitt AMP Ocala Music Series. Recorded in collaboration with the Reilly Arts Center, as part of the new Reilly Digital Series, tonight’s concert celebrates the collective creativity, innovation and resilience of Ocala’s cultural sector.

Stitching Together ‘One Ocala’

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Sign welcoming visitors to Ocala

Nestled in the heart of north central Florida’s ‘horse country,’ classic Florida charm thrives in the 60,429-person city of Ocala. Home to more horses than anywhere else in the country and the U.S. Equestrian Team’s official training site, many consider the Ocala/Marion County area to be the “Horse Capital of the World.” Located about 80 miles northwest of Orlando, Ocala is surrounded by freshwater streams and rolling hills, and just minutes away from ‘Florida’s Original Attraction,’ the scenic Silver Springs State Park—which boasts crystal clear 72-degree springs year-round.

Today, community leaders are working together to create ‘One Ocala’ after decades of disinvestment in the city’s historically Black neighborhoods created a tale of two very different Ocalas. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 changed the face of West Ocala, transforming this once vibrant hub of local African American commerce and community life on West Broadway into a busy throughway—destroying homes, businesses, a hospital and other landmarks in the process. For decades, US Highway 301 stood as both a physical and social division between West Ocala and the city’s downtown, deepening cultural and economic divisions, as well. Continue reading

Riverfront Amphitheater along the Arkansas River, home to the future Levitt AMP Fort Smith Music Series in 2021

The Riverfront Amphitheater along the Arkansas River, home to the future Levitt AMP Fort Smith Music Series in 2021

 

Get those birthday wishes rollin’ during tonight’s free livestream concert featuring the soulful vocals of Allison Grace, a hometown favorite in the city of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Her birthday is today, and “what better way to celebrate than with a show from one of our city’s best!” exclaims Talicia Richardson, executive director of 64.6 Downtown, the nonprofit behind the Levitt AMP Fort Smith Music Series and co-presenter of tonight’s livestream as part of the Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series. Earlier this year, Grace made her nationally-televised debut performing a moving rendition of “Don’t Know Why” by Norah Jones during blind auditions on NBC’s “The Voice.” Her performance impressed the judges and racked up more than half a million views on YouTube, earning her new fans across the country in the process. Tonight’s livestream will also feature the hip-hop hooks and spoken-word beats of local musician, entrepreneur and community leader Chris Chaney, so be sure to tune in at levittamp.org/virtual at 8pm EDT/5pm PDT!

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Zoom has quickly become a facet of everyday life for many people, both for work and for connecting with friends and family. When your home backdrop needs a refresh, a virtual background is the perfect way to enhance your ambience — and where better to virtually be than an outdoor Levitt venue? Save these iconic photos of Levitt venues to your computer (or phone) for your next video call. 

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Brulé at Levitt Shell Sioux Falls

November is National Native American Heritage Month. In 1990, this national month-long observance was created to acknowledge and celebrate the rich histories, diverse cultures and noteworthy contributions of indigenous communities. By leveraging the power of community partnerships and creative placemaking—the integration of arts and culture to engage communities—permanent Levitt venues have had the privilege of collaborating with Native American artists and organizations to help bring indigenous arts and culture into the spotlight. Read on to learn about the inspiring partnerships and performers that have brought indigenous arts to three permanent Levitt venues this past summer.

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Across the country, exciting collaborations are happening among Levitt venues and AMP grantees with artists, schools and nonprofits that fuse music with learning opportunities for youth. From putting student musicians center stage during Levitt Shell Memphis’ annual Stax Night, to bringing esteemed performers into middle school classrooms through masterclasses at Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks, to a robust “Levitteen” internship program giving young people hands-on experience with concert photography at Levitt AMP Utica, there are myriad ways these partnerships are using the power of music to catalyze learning, inspire possibility and create opportunities for youth. Read on to learn more!

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Sharing Levitt's Impact on the Conference Stage

Over the past decade, the Levitt Foundation has helped bring thousands of free outdoor concerts to millions of people nationwide through Levitt’s transformative creative placemaking programs for communities of all sizes. The impact of permanent Levitt venues and the Levitt AMP [Your City] Grant Awards has been far reaching—activating underused public spaces through the power of free, live music; creating welcoming gathering places where people come together to celebrate the arts and their shared humanity; injecting local economies with new activity; and strengthening the social fabric of our communities, one concert at a time. Continue reading

  • Catching our breath to say hello: Summit Executive Co-Producers Vanessa Silberman and Sharon Yazowski of the Levitt Foundation with NCCP’s Andrea Orlando and Thomas Young
    Summit Executive Co-Producers Vanessa Silberman and Sharon Yazowski of the Levitt Foundation with NCCP’s Andrea Orlando and Thomas Young
Last week, nearly 200 creative placemaking strategists from a broad range of sectors gathered in downtown Los Angeles for the first-ever Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit (CPLS) in the Pacific region! Urban planners, architects, artists, government agencies, funders, nonprofit leaders (including Levitt partners and grantees!) and community organizers, amongst others, spent three days engaged in thought-provoking sessions, rich dialogue and knowledge exchange focused on how creative placemaking—strategically engaging arts and local culture to enhance and elevate communities—can help us address pressing social, economic and environmental issues. And in another first, the Levitt Foundation played a key role in Summit planning by serving as co-producers, with Executive Director Sharon Yazowski and Senior Director of Communications & Strategic Initiatives Vanessa Silberman leading the effort, alongside the amazing folks at The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking (NCCP) and ArtPlace America.

The Pacific Summit was one of five Creative Placemaking Leadership Summits taking place in different regions across the country in 2019, organized by NCCP and ArtPlace America, and supported in part by the Levitt Foundation. “We’re dedicated to building the field of creative placemaking, and have been greatly impressed with the work of NCCP as a supporter of their summits since 2017,” says Yazowski. “So when NCCP reached out to Vanessa and I, asking if we would take a lead role in planning the Pacific Summit, we immediately knew this would be an invaluable opportunity to highlight the role of creative placemaking as a cross-sector strategy to address issues specific in the Pacific region while deepening the conversation among funders and practitioners.”

The Summit’s theme of “Shifting Tides” focused on the Pacific region’s booming economy, shifting demographics and climate change, and attracted attendees from up and down the West Coast as well as from Alaska and Hawaii. Through seminars, workshops, peer exchanges and field workshops, attendees explored how creative placemaking can play a role in shaping the future to ensure equitable, inclusive, sustainable communities while giving voice and ownership to the people who live there. Other themes that were discussed included Keeping Places (embrace the people and cultural assets already within a place while welcoming newcomers and mitigating displacement and cultural erasure), Amplifying Voices (fostering equity, diversity, and inclusion), Weathering Storms (creative approaches to disaster relief, sustainability, and regeneration) and Supporting Movement (issues related to immigration, class mobility, and public transit). Thanks to NCCP and funding from LA’s Department of Cultural Affairs, partial scholarships were awarded to 60 scholars, ensuring that artists and small nonprofits could be part of the conversation.

The Summit was also a wonderful opportunity for attendees to learn more about the Levitt program through both learning sessions and a free concert at Levitt LA!  During a morning plenary, the team at Levitt Pavilion Los Angeles (Allegra Padilla, Director of Community Relations & Partnerships; Carla Contreras Cabrera, Community Outreach Coordinator; Matthew Himes, Director of Programming & Production; and Oliver DelGado, Director of Marketing & Communications) along with Yazowski, Levitt LA’s founding Executive Director, packed the room for an illuminating discussion on the intentional and multi-layered approach of Levitt LA to amplify voices in marginalized communities. The rewards and challenges of the Levitt Foundation’s hands-on grantmaking to deepen impact both from the funder and grantee perspective was the focus of another session led by Yazowski, Executive Director Patti Diou of Levitt Pavilion Arlington, and Executive Director Gina Chavez Hill of the Brewery Arts Center (Levitt AMP grantee) in Carson City, Nev. To top it off, Summit attendees danced the night away  at Levitt LA in the city’s historic MacArthur Park on Friday night, enjoying the energizing sounds of ska-rockers Viernes 13 and The Slackers while enjoying a picnic.

Additional highlights:

  • Hanmin Lius and Jennifer Mei of San Francisco’s Wildflowers Institute leading a thoughtful discussion on cultural mapping and the ways people self-identify as artists in unlikely places as a way to address issues around displacement
  • Annette Roth of the Washington State Arts Commission discussing the opportunities and challenges of creating cultural districts in rural communities
  • The City of San Jose’s Michael Ogilvie discussing the city’s interactive public art program, Illuminating Downtown, marrying art with tech to create a more engaging sense of place
  • Joanne Kim and Kristen Gordon sharing plans for LA’s Destination Crenshaw, an open-air museum along a transit corridor reclaiming and honoring Black LA set to open in 2020
  • In-the-Field workshops on Saturday to Leimert Park (one of LA’s most vibrant cultural districts), LA’s Japantown (fighting for its future through placekeeping), LA Poverty Department (arts group consisting of un-housed and formerly un-housed people) and Self Help Graphics (a cultural anchor in an evolving, historically Latino neighborhood)

As the field of creative placemaking continues to grow, evolve and deepen, we look forward to continuing our support of CPL Summits!  Next up? CPL is headed to Cincinnati October 10-12 to engage creative placemakers from throughout the Midwest.

SiouxFallsBeauty

The City of Sioux Falls marked the beginning of a new chapter earlier this month when the newly completed Levitt Shell Sioux Falls, the 8th permanent Levitt venue, held its inaugural concert on June 14th. Over 4,000 people from across the city gathered on picnic blankets and lawn chairs to celebrate the occasion and watch GRAMMY-nominated blues artist Ruthie Foster give an awe-inspiring performance. Among them were the volunteers, staff and board members of the Friends of Levitt Shell Sioux Falls, the nonprofit organization that led the development of the venue through years of collaboration with the Levitt Foundation and the City of Sioux Falls. Levitt Foundation Board President Liz Levitt Hirsch and board members from both the Foundation and the national network of permanent Levitt venues also attended in support, along with the City’s mayor, Paul TenHaken. The celebration continued the following night, when Levitt National Tour headliner Flor de Toloache, the GRAMMY-winning all-female mariachi sensation from New York City, took to the stage in front of a packed lawn. Acclaimed children’s entertainer Phil Baker brought the opening weekend celebration to a close the next day with a special performance appealing to both the young and young at heart. Levitt at the Falls will host a total of 30 free concerts through August, expanding to 50 free concerts every summer beginning in 2020.

A dream 8 years in the making
The festive opening weekend realized an idea that came to light in 2011, when former lawmaker and lifelong Sioux Falls resident Tom Dempster received a phone call from a high school friend living in Pasadena, Calif. Tim Boe, now deceased, was a frequent concertgoer at the Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena, and boldly told Dempster, “Sioux Falls needs a Levitt.”

Change was already afoot in Sioux falls at the time of Boe’s phone call. The city’s population was soaring, and immigrant and refugee communities were bringing newfound cultural diversity to the once-largely Caucasian Midwestern city. At the time, over 60 different languages were spoken in the Sioux Falls School District (today, that number has increased to 80). In addition to a growing need for accessible arts and events, city and community leadership were seeking ways to bring its increasingly diverse population together. Meanwhile, the entrance to one of Sioux Falls’ most significant outdoor spaces was lying dormant—Falls Park West, a sprawling green space adjacent to the city’s bustling downtown and just minutes away from the cascading waterfalls that gave the city its name.

Dempster contacted the Levitt Foundation and made the case for bringing a new permanent Levitt venue to Falls Park West. The Foundation’s leadership was impressed. “The more the Foundation learned about Sioux Falls… the community’s displayed commitment and civic pride, and its visionary leadership to create programming that would bring people together, the more we realized Sioux Falls was an ideal match for the Levitt program,” said Sharon Yazowski, Executive Director of the Levitt Foundation, reflecting on her early visits to Sioux Falls.

A concert space like no other
The plan to bring a free outdoor music venue to Sioux Falls was quickly met with an outpouring of enthusiasm and support from residents, as well as the city’s business and philanthropic communities. Dempster established the Friends of Levitt Shell Sioux Falls nonprofit to bring advocates together and coordinate the effort. Realizing the enormity of the project, he asked Jennifer Kirby, a seasoned volunteer leader of nonprofits and capital campaigns, to be the organization’s co-chair, alongside him. Kirby later took the helm as board chair and through her leadership, the Friends of Levitt nonprofit developed a public/private partnership with the City of Sioux Falls and the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation.

The packed lawn

Community members pack the lawn for opening night

Of the $4.6 million needed for the project, the City covered $2.5 million, the Foundation provided $500,000, and generous donations from businesses and the community, including a major gift from the Kirby family, covered the rest. Denver-based architecture firm Sink Combs Dethlefs was hired to create the concert space, breathing life into the homegrown design concept. Inspired by the shape of the Big Sioux River, the fluid, organic shape of the Shell’s roof was conceived by Friends of Levitt Shell Sioux Falls board member Catherine Dekkenga, who drew the first draft on a napkin. Sioux Falls Parks Director Don Kearney called the cooperation, “a testament to the teamwork and perseverance by all parties to make this project happen for our Sioux Falls community.” With the venue’s construction underway, Nancy Halverson was hired in the summer of 2018 to steer the Friends of Levitt Sioux Falls into the future as the organization’s first Executive Director.  

From left to right:  Sharon Yazowski, Nancy Halverson, and Liz Levitt Hirsch gear up for the opening ceremony

From left to right:  Sharon Yazowski, Nancy Halverson, and Liz Levitt Hirsch gear up for the opening ceremony

Growing anticipation
The construction crew put the finishing touches on the new venue in early June, and as opening weekend approached, Sioux Falls was buzzing with excitement. “I hope it can bring everyone together. I want everyone to feel welcome. I want everyone to feel like they have a chance to experience live, outdoor music,” Kirby told reporters at the Argus Leader after being awarded a Challenge Coin by the City for her role in the project. On the day of the opening, Liz Levitt Hirsch joined Halverson and headlining artist Ruthie Foster on KELOland News to discuss the inaugural concert. Levitt Hirsch expressed her gratitude for the community that made the transformation of Falls Park West possible, saying, “What I’m really proud of are the wonderful people of Sioux Falls.” Later, when asked her opinion on Foster’s GRAMMY-nominated blues music, Hirsch responded, “Ruthie’s going to drive an arrow though your heart!” Halverson added, “There’s no better match [for the inaugural concert] for our mission of building community through music.”

Ruthie Foster performs at the inaugural concert

Ruthie Foster performs at the inaugural concert

The day of the concert brought clear skies and a Midwestern sun that remained present well into the evening. Mayor TenHaken, Levitt Hirsch, Halverson and Yazowski all spoke before the enthusiastic crowd, giving well-deserved acknowledgement to the many people who had made the momentous occasion possible, including Dempster and Kirby. Kirby later remarked that she had “never seen such excitement in the community” or “joy on people’s faces.” Bringing Levitt to Sioux Falls, Kirby concluded, “has already made it a better place to live, work and play.” After an opening performance by Groove Inc, a local drum corps, Foster took to the stage and Levitt at the Falls’ inaugural concert was underway.

Twilight had descended upon Falls Park West by the time the music was over, but conversations between friends and neighbors lingered on. Opening weekend brought thousands of people together in Falls Park West, and Levitt Sioux Falls is quickly becoming a beloved cultural destination. Halverson later put into words what many were feeling: “Our community has fallen in love with Levitt, and we look forward to much more fantastic music and community building for years to come.”