When Eliot Pfanstiehl was first hired in 1981 to convert the Mansion at Strathmore in Bethesda into an arts center, he heard the same thing over and over again: “Why bother?”
After all, the Kennedy Center was the place to perform for artists and productions visiting the Washington, D.C. area, and with a population of roughly 500,000, and Montgomery County was considered nothing more than a bedroom community for people working in the District. As far as the arts were concerned, Pfanstiehl said, the area was “prehistoric.”
37 years later, however, the County’s population has surpassed 1 million, and the Strathmore, with its concert hall and education center, hosts 160 concerts each year, of which most, he said, draw audiences large enough to fill 80 to 85 percent of Strathmore’s 1,976 seats. Both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the National Philharmonic call the Mansion their local home, and the eclectic concerts staged at Strathmore are as varied, culturally speaking, as the residents of Montgomery County are, he said.
“The doomsayers were wrong,” he said proudly, as he recalled all those who insisted the Kennedy Center offered enough concerts and art entertainment for the whole area. “I am happy to say, they were unequivocally wrong.”
The curtain will eventually fall on Pfanstiehl’s tenure as CEO at Strathmore, as the 68-year-old announced last week that he would step down as of Aug. 31, in favor of a successor for whom a search committee will be formed, said Robert G. Brewer Jr, who will lead the committee in addition to his role as chairman of Strathmore’s Board of Directors.
In addition to his legacy of restoring and adding to the Mansion, Pfanstiehl is also responsible for the addition of summer concerts on Strathmore’s lawn, a cabaret-style venue at Pike & Rose as well as arts educational programs throughout the County.
At first, the Mansion was renovated to hold small, 100-seat performances and art shows. Later, a gazebo was placed on the lawn, which now is the site of summer concerts for up to 1,500 people. Then the Mansion was renovated. In 2014, the 230-seat AMP opened as a nearby setting for more intimate concerts.
“Incrementally, we worked our way up,” he said.
In 2015, Pfanstiehl established the Bloom Initiative, which provides arts programming to east Montgomery County, often by Strathmore’s artists in residence, bringing highly-subsidized programming to areas along the Route 29 corridor without a lot of art offerings.
These concerts and classes are held in schools, churches and recreation centers.
While government officials often talk of reducing art funding to schools and local communities, Pfanstiehl is not worried about the future. “I think the arts are just ingrained. I am not worried about art going away,” especially in Montgomery County, where “the arts are wonderfully treated.”
While Pfansteihl played the flute and did some conducting as a high school student, he refers to himself as an art appreciator rather than a performer.
“I enable artists,” he said.
He won’t admit to a favorite music genre, although he does enjoy jazz and musical theatre.
However, Pfanstiehl did say he still hasn’t gotten over watching Tony Bennett perform at the age of 90.
“He knocked the socks off the people. He put the mic down,” Pfanstiehl recalled, that’s got to be my best highlight.”
Despite the Silver Spring resident’s plans for his last bow at Strathmore, Pfanstiehl is not going away. Although he was born in Washington, D.C., Pfanstiel is a life-long resident of Montgomery County, where he raised four children, all of whom attended James Hubert Blake High School, which, coincidentally, is the County’s go-to public school for arts education.
Pfanstiehl maintains, however, that he isn’t retiring, which – to him – means lying on the beach. Instead, he said, he is redeploying, and will work on various volunteer boards and programs.
“I’m looking forward to people coming up to me and saying, ‘Eliot how can we …,’” and together new projects will emerge, he said.