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#InConversationWith Sharon Yazowski, CEO, Levitt Foundation

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

Sharon Yazowski CEO Levitt Foundation

"In connecting these dots, we are continuing to make the case and accelerate a movement that recognizes the importance of free concerts in public spaces as a critical element to building more equitable, healthy, and thriving communities."

We are a community of people in every profession and sector using music to create more value in towns and cities all over the world. In the special series #InConversationWith, we talk to accomplished members of our community and uncover their journey.

This story features Sharon Yazowski, Chief Executive Officer, Levitt Foundation.

Profile at a Glance

  • Full Name: Sharon Yazowski.

  • City, Country: Los Angeles, California, USA.

  • Work Profile/Designation: Chief Executive Officer, Levitt Foundation.

As CEO of the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation, Sharon provides visionary leadership in fulfilling the Foundation’s mission to strengthen the social fabric of America and reinvigorate public spaces through the power of free, live music. Through her role at the Levitt Foundation—a national social impact funder working at the intersection of music, public space, and community building—she has become a recognized thought leader on arts investments in public spaces to build equitable, healthy, and thriving communities. Sharon’s passionate commitment to the arts as a vehicle for positive change in communities has guided the growth of Levitt programs across the country, in addition to the Foundation’s creative placemaking research and investments in music ecosystems.

Levitt Foundation Live Music Open Spaces

How did you get to where you are today, professionally?

Music has always played a central role in my life. I grew up playing multiple instruments and when I discovered my singing talent as a teenager, I decided to pursue a music degree in opera performance. However, by my second year of the program, I knew performance wasn’t going to be my ultimate path, so I created an arts and business concentration alongside my performance studies. That led me to an internship at the Evanston Arts Council, in metropolitan Chicago. The agency was understaffed, and since I had a music background, within a short time of my arrival I was booking bands for free outdoor festivals and producing a free lunchtime concert series—Friday Fest at Fountain Square in downtown Evanston. I had so much fun curating series and festival lineups. The process of going to all kinds of clubs throughout Chicago (this was a bit before the Internet!) and discovering artists that others would then have the opportunity to discover as well was super exciting.

Though what I loved most about producing free community concerts was the mix of people in the audience—downtown professionals, college students, kids from the local daycare, seniors, teenagers with their skateboards, people who were unhoused—all enjoying the music together. And that gathering of people happened at the concerts week after week. At the young age of 21, I remember being deeply moved by this, so I raised funds to present free concert series in other Evanston neighborhoods. And that’s what really set me on my path for a career in creating arts experiences accessible to everyone.

In the early chapters of my career, I worked with a range of nonprofits and projects in public spaces, including a mural project for Chicago’s L platforms, produced cultural events and festivals on the lakefront, while learning the dynamics of public/private partnerships, fundraising for the arts, and capacity building for nonprofits.

A few years after relocating to Los Angeles, I was connected to Levitt by my first boss at the Evanston Arts Council, who was quite familiar with my passion for free concerts in public spaces! I was initially brought on as a consultant to guide the launch of the Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park and manage the public/partnership with the City of Los Angeles, though within weeks I knew this was the work that I wanted to be doing and transitioned to becoming Levitt LA’s founding executive director. Levitt LA was the third venue to open in the Levitt network, which now includes 45 communities. While the Levitt Foundation was a major funder of the project, it was a private family foundation with no staff at the time. So I approached Liz Levitt Hirsch, who had been leading the Foundation’s work and now serves as our Board President, and pitched my coming on board as the first employee to professionalize the organization and scale the program nationally. From the beginning, Liz and I really clicked and she’s been a fantastic partner, and here we are 15 years later fully realizing social and economic impact through the power of free, live music in public spaces across the U.S.

Levitt Foundation AMP Project

Tell us a bit about the origins of the Levitt Foundation and the focus of its work

Mortimer Levitt is a rags to riches American story. As a boy in Brooklyn in the 1910s, he would often visit the dazzling Luna Park on Coney Island where his father worked as a street vendor. Unable to afford admission to the park’s rides and shows, Mortimer would stand outside the gates of ticketed events and musical performances. These early childhood experiences inspired his later support of free outdoor music and belief in making the arts accessible to everyone, regardless of one’s ability to pay.

In the 1930s, Mortimer founded The Custom Shop, an affordable made-to-order menswear company, which expanded to multiple locations and made Mortimer a millionaire. He leveraged this success and grew the family’s wealth through commercial real estate. Together with his wife, Mimi, the couple created the Levitt Foundation in 1966 to support the arts, culture, and education and became noted New York City philanthropists.

Later, Mortimer and Mimi were the primary benefactors of a bandshell in Westport, Connecticut—the original Levitt Pavilion—which opened in 1974 and transformed the town dump into a community gathering space for free outdoor concerts. In 1997, Mortimer sold The Custom Shop and put the proceeds from the sale into the Levitt Foundation—the continuing success of the Levitt Pavilion in Westport inspired Mortimer to lay the groundwork for a national network of Levitt venues, so communities across the country could come together through the shared experience of free concerts under the stars.

Over the past two decades, Levitt’s venture philanthropy model has expanded to become a national network of Levitt venues and Levitt AMP concert sites, each creating positive social impact and vibrancy in their communities. Both Levitt venues and Levitt AMP sites are community-driven and focus on activating underused public spaces, creating thriving, inclusive community destinations where all feel welcome in open lawn settings. Since 2003, grants totaling more than $20 million from the Levitt Foundation have supported Levitt venues and Levitt AMP concert sites across the country. To date, the Levitt Foundation has supported the development of nonprofit Levitt venues in nine cities, with three venues in development, and we’ve provided funding to nonprofits presenting the Levitt AMP Music Series in more than 50 small to mid-sized towns and cities. In 2024, we’ll be supporting over 45 communities, collectively presenting 700+ free concerts across the country.

The work of the Levitt Foundation also includes research, sharing Levitt’s dynamic impact and key learnings with the field, at conferences and convenings (like Music Cities!), and with audiences across a range of sectors on the role of creative placemaking and inclusive arts investments to build social capital, increase resiliency, and elevate the overall well-being and economic vitality of communities.

Which would you say is your main project right now? For those who aren’t familiar, please describe it and talk a little bit about it.

The current chapter of the Levitt Foundation is one of growth and expansion. Our team is giving thought to how we can advance our mission of building community through music, beyond free concerts in public spaces. While free concerts will remain our primary focus, we are exploring potential partnerships to support more equitable music ecosystems, as well as access to music experiences and entry into the music industry for those typically underrepresented and to broaden opportunities for participation.

We’re also looking to develop regional funder partnerships, so the Levitt program can reach more communities. We’re aiming to collaborate with regional agencies and funders that would like to support free concert series in public spaces, with the communities they serve benefitting from the robust resources, shared learnings and trainings that come with being part of the Levitt network.

Recognizing the power of music in public spaces to build social capital and foster community engagement, we will be launching new research in 2024 to add to our previous whitepapers demonstrating why inclusive arts investment strategies should be prioritized across sectors.

Programs like Levitt that bring people together and create multiple opportunities for social connection are needed now more than ever to address one of society's greatest ills, which is the sharp rise in social isolation. As the United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has been emphasizing, social isolation is having grave consequences on our individual mental and physical health, as well as our overall collective well-being. Data supports that the more people engage in their community, get to know their neighbors and cross paths with those they typically wouldn’t otherwise—the more we see, hear, and connect with one another—we have higher levels of community trust, which leads to increased public safety, greater economic vitality, and better health outcomes.

In connecting these dots, we are continuing to make the case and accelerate a movement that recognizes the importance of free concerts in public spaces as a critical element to building more equitable, healthy, and thriving communities. Highlighting the dynamic ripple effect, we are focused on elevating visibility for the story of why free concerts in public spaces matter, for the field and other sectors to leverage in their efforts to advance this work.

La Santa Cecilia Levitt Foundation

Walk me through a typical day-to-day working at the Levitt Foundation

There is no typical day-to-day for me, as the Levitt Foundation is a national funder and I travel frequently to visit Levitt venues in action, meet with civic and community leadership to develop partnerships, as well as speak about the impact of Levitt programs and creative placemaking across the country. With that said, a throughline regardless of the region, state, size of town or city, is that I’m meeting with people who genuinely care about their community. Levitt venue partners and Levitt AMP grantees are amazing people who are committed to strengthening the social fabric of their communities through music. It’s always inspiring to spend time with them, learn from their experiences and be a thought partner. In my travels, I also meet with those who don’t fully understand the impact of arts investments in public spaces and that’s a significant part of my role—engaging in dialogue to inspire allocation of resources and support for community-driven efforts to bring free concert series to life.

When I’m in Los Angeles, where the Levitt Foundation is based, I have the great joy of collaborating with an incredibly creative, intelligent, and dedicated team who are passionate about the Levitt mission of building community through music. I spend my time as a thought partner with the Foundation team and balancing different phases of our work, a productive tension between focusing on the short-term and long-term, while addressing inevitable situations that arise with the myriad variables of public spaces. My days vary, from developing grant opportunities and grantee resources with the team to brainstorming with city leadership about financing a new Levitt venue to meeting with our financial advisors about the Foundation’s investment portfolio to building relationships with potential partners to reading research from the field, though when I look out my window at the LA skyline, I'll pause with gratitude for the opportunity to do this work.

How does your work impact the music/cultural ecosystem of the country? Do you have any milestones, challenges and/or learnings that you’d like to share?

Ultimately, in terms of how our work impacts the music and cultural ecosystem for the country, Levitt is proof of concept for why free concerts in public spaces matter, as a means to build social capital and in turn, build trust and resiliency in communities. Through our research and sharing the Levitt story, we're making a clear case for why free concerts are an essential part of any local or regional music ecosystem.

One major milestone for the Levitt Foundation has been the successful launch of the Levitt AMP [Your City] Grant Awards program in 2015, supporting over 50 communities to date. The Foundation’s initial focus was bringing the Levitt program to large metro areas and funding the renovation or construction of state-of-the-art outdoor performance venues. We tailored the hallmark characteristics of the venue program—open lawn setting, high-caliber entertainment, broad range of music genres and cultural performances, community-driven, local partnerships—to be applicable to small to mid-sized towns and cities. Scaling the free concert series program into one that has been sustainable for rural communities and seeing the Levitt AMP program thrive has been truly rewarding.

In terms of learnings, we learn from every Levitt venue partner and Levitt AMP grantee, in part because we support communities in different regions across the country. We are constantly learning about regional traditions, cultures, patterns, etc. and that informs our program frameworks to ensure equity, diversity, and inclusion is embedded throughout all aspects of our work. We challenge ourselves to apply these learnings to ensure a program framework that can be truly responsive to the unique needs of each community.

A few Levitt AMP communities have experienced catastrophic weather events this past year, and yet as part of their community recovery and healing, they continued their concert series. That speaks to how free concerts bring people together and create a welcoming gathering place. Data and research aside, when we see firsthand how the Levitt program plays a part in strengthening a community’s resiliency, that’s a compelling testament to the power of this work.

What would you like to see discussed more regarding music cities topics? What do you think are the most pressing topics to address?

I would love for conversations around equity and access to be even more central. How are we collectively creating more equitable music ecosystems? To expand entry points into the industry, access to music experiences, and opportunities for participation—on the stage, in the audience, and in the range of roles behind the scenes, from production and curation to marketing and representation. How are we addressing systems and structures that continue to create barriers for those who have been historically underrepresented in decision making roles and positions of influence? Ensuring there's entry opportunities, equal pay and advancement opportunities for all people who want a career in music (in the broadest sense), regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and one’s understanding of why it matters, is crucial—an equitable music ecosystem is a stronger music ecosystem. A healthy music ecosystem is one that is a holistic reflection of the community, in every layer.

The reality is that participating in any music ecosystem as a fan is often cost-prohibitive, so continuing to support free and low-cost concert experiences, and policy initiatives such as Fix the Tix, is also key in creating more equitable music ecosystems.

What are the most interesting projects that you’ve come across lately using music to improve cities/places where people live?

It’s really exciting to watch Center for Music Ecosystems evolve in its early stages as an organization dedicated to globally relevant research to address societal issues and effect change through music, and I am honored to serve as board member for CME. Check out their current projects, including research on how music plays a role in building community resiliency in remote and isolated communities.

Levitt Foundation Logo

About Levitt Foundation:

The Levitt Foundation exists to strengthen the social fabric of America.

It partners with communities to activate underused outdoor spaces, creating welcoming, inclusive destinations where the power of free, live music brings people together and invigorates community life.

Learn more and get involved with the Levitt Foundation here.

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