Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Nurturing ‘Change-Makers’ in the Arts

Nurturing ‘Change-Makers’ in the Arts

Headshot of Beth Steward

For years, Beth Stewart (KSAS BA ’04, Latin American Studies; BM ’04, MM ’06, GPD ’09, Voice) had an idea floating around in her head.

As the founder of Verismo Communications, a boutique public relations firm that represents classical musicians and arts organizations, and as a former producer and vocal performer herself, she’d noticed that the arts industry is especially hard on freelancers who are working outside an established institutional framework — and she wanted to do something about it. But she didn’t feel equipped to make a move.

And then she heard these words: “Philanthropy is giving what you have.” Stewart’s thought process went like this: “I have some time, not a ton, and some expertise. But what I really have is the capacity to connect brilliant people and ideas. Maybe I can bring that to the table.”

The idea that had been percolating was a foundation to foster one-on-one mentorship between exceptional artists and mentors. In particular, she wanted the foundation to benefit talented women, people of color and other arts professionals from traditionally underrepresented groups, who were already engaging their communities and working toward social justice.

“I started calling brilliant women that I respect across the country,” says Stewart. In the summer of 2018, Turn the Spotlight was born. The nonprofit aims to identify, nurture, and empower leaders in the arts. Stewart’s vision? A more equitable arts industry.

For the pilot project, she recruited 10 industry-leading arts professionals from a wide range of fields — including film makers, arts activists, opera singers, a composer and designer — to serve as mentors. Among them were Peabody alumnae soprano Corinne Winters (MM ’07, Voice) and arts educator Alysia Lee (MM ’06, Voice). Then she put together an advisory board composed of 10 women, including journalists Anne Midgette and Celeste Headlee, conductors Lidiya Yankovskaya and Nicole Paiement, and women’s rights advocate Amanda Mejia.

The next step was to find the right artists to be mentees. To identify Turn the Spotlight fellows, Stewart and her board looked specifically for people with clear personal missions who were strengthening their communities. “As artists, a lot of our professional energy is focused inward. And that’s a liability,” says Stewart. “We’re strongest when we use our art to connect.”

The first cohort of Turn The Spotlight fellows was composed of 11 women and people of color, most of whom had already founded organizations geared toward the greater good. Peabody alumna composer Frances Pollock (MM ’15, Voice) was among them. Stewart says each fellow had a season-long project that he or she worked on over the course of the mentorship.

For example, violinists Elena Urioste and Melissa White developed an app called Intermission, which provides movement and mindfulness techniques geared to musicians. Andrew Lee, a violinist, pianist, and conductor, worked to expand the education programs at DC Strings, an organization that brings classical music to underserved areas of the Washington, D.C., region. Lucy Dhegrae, a vocalist and founder of the Resonant Bodies Festival, created a series of concerts called “The Processing Series,” exploring how the body processes trauma.

Stewart said the Spotlight leadership team paid close attention to what worked in the pilot project — and what didn’t.

“Our next cohort launches in January 2020, and the new crop of Turn The Spotlight fellows will have 18 months to collaborate with their mentors – and with each other,” Stewart says. “We’re really looking to build a network of women and people of color in the arts.”

Stewart has ideas for how Turn the Spotlight could evolve, but will stay true to the mission of pairing up mentors and fellows whose work resonates with each other. “I want this to grow organically,” she says. “I’m looking for change-makers.”

— Christine Grillo