From Alaska to Florida to multiple places in between, free Levitt concerts brought joy, connection, and a shared sense of community to more than 750,000 people this past year. The Levitt Foundation was proud to support 25 nonprofits in towns and cities nationwide, which presented more than 500 free concerts across the Levitt network of music venues and concert sites. Artists on Levitt stages ranged from GRAMMY winners and household names to emerging local artists and youth musicians, representing virtually every genre of music imaginable. In addition to presenting the most diverse artist lineup yet, Levitt venues and AMP sites were forging community partnerships, launching cultural festivals, engaging new audiences, and continuing to play a key role in creating welcoming spaces for people of all ages and backgrounds to come together.
Read on as we share highlights from an extraordinary year of free music on Levitt lawns where people celebrated community across the United States.
Levitt Venues Share the Spotlight
Located in seven metro areas across the country, Levitt venues present 40–50 free outdoor concerts each summer in state-of-the art music venues that are celebrated cultural gems. Managed, programmed, and supported by local Friends of Levitt nonprofit organizations located in Arlington, Texas; Bethlehem, Pa.; Dayton, Ohio; Denver; Los Angeles; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Westport, Conn., Levitt venues collectively welcomed hundreds of thousands of concertgoers this past season to enjoy memorable music under the stars. There were plenty of marquee-name artists to be found on Levitt stages, including current GRAMMY Album of the Year nominees Lucius, indie rock favorites The Drive By Truckers, Afrobeat royalty Femi Kuti, Tejano legend Gary Hobbs, cumbia standard-bearers La Sonora Dinamita, funk veterans Lakeside, GRAMMY-winning crowd pleasers La Santa Cecilia, and numerous others. Beyond offering stellar lineups, Levitt venues presented artists representing a broad range of styles and backgrounds, while also deepening community engagement through partnerships with local nonprofits, creating new festivals and showcasing local talent.
Artists Lineups Reflect a Commitment to Diversity
Ensuring that the artists onstage reflect the diversity of their communities, Levitt venues curated an inspiring range of music genres and cultural programs this past year, allowing audiences to not only see themselves represented on Levitt stages, but also experience cultures other than their own.
At Levitt Pavilion Dayton (officially certified as a “Welcoming City” in recognition of its many programs and policies promoting immigrant inclusion), Executive Director Lisa Wagner and her team curated concerts dedicated to African, Middle Eastern, Celtic, and Indian music, drawing a wide range of audiences from across the Ohio city’s diverse communities. “We wanted to make sure that we’re representing all of the city’s cultures, including newer transplants, and to make it clear that Levitt Dayton is for everyone,” says Wagner.
And with more diversity among the performers, the chances for moments of unexpected discovery also increased. Levitt Pavilion Denver’s Interim Executive Director Andy Thomas recalls a particularly revelatory performance from Gamelan Tunas Mekar, which performed Bali-based orchestral music on hand-hammered instruments to a large, receptive audience this past summer in Ruby Hill Park. “That’s one of the things Levitt is about,” he says: “exposing people to new music that they haven’t heard.”
In Bethlehem, Pa., Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks presented a lineup that was 50 percent female and 50 percent artists of color. Recently departed Executive Director Anne Sturm was particularly enamored with a performance from Black Opry, the recently formed touring revue of Black country musicians, which she says “showcased the diversity in sound and stories that Black artists offer to the country, blues, folk, and Americana music genres. So it was not only a great performance at Levitt, it was also engaging and educational.”
Community Partners Take the Lead
Levitt venues have long recognized the importance of collaboration with key partners to engage the entire community, build bridges with underrepresented groups, and effect positive change. This past year saw each of the Levitt venues deepen these connections, expanding their impact beyond Levitt lawns.
Levitt Pavilion Dayton worked with a host of local organizations to create pop-up concerts in neighborhoods throughout the city, including concerts designed to destigmatize food insecurity through partnerships with The Foodbank and Gem City Market. In addition to food banks, Levitt Dayton also brought pop-up concerts to other types of social service organizations, including the Montgomery County Employment Opportunity Center, where local fan favorite the Dayton Funk All-Stars entertained an enthusiastic crowd in the Center’s parking lot, raising awareness for the newly opened facility which offers job training and educational opportunities in west Dayton.
Similarly, recognizing the rich cultural tapestry of the local community, Texas’ Levitt Pavilion Arlington launched three new cultural events, all of which were driven by community partnerships. The Asian Heritage Celebration, the Arlington Juneteenth Celebration, and the Hispanic Heritage Celebration were all presented in collaboration with local partners: the Arlington Mayor’s Asian Advisory Council, the Arlington chapter of Phi Beta Sigma, and the Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council, respectively. Levitt Arlington Executive Director Letatia Teykl and her team provided support to partners to take the lead on curation and lineup, ensuring that creative decision-making rested in the hands of the people most closely connected to those communities.
As Teykl explains, “We said, let’s take the cost of what it normally takes to put on a show, and gift that to these organizations. And then tell them, ‘You as a committee can go out and put on the kind of show you want to put on.” Teykl hails the “incredible” responses to each event from the community, with each event drawing tremendous audience turnout.
At Levitt Pavilion Denver, Thomas and the team broadened the venue’s activation beyond free concerts to become even more of a community hub. Levitt Denver offered free yoga lessons on the lawn throughout the summer and partnered with the Alliance for Music Education Equity to host a resource fair providing educational opportunities for young Denverites pursuing careers in music.
“The free concerts are important—that’s a big part of what Levitt does,” Thomas says. “But at the end of the day, Levitt [Denver] is a community center, and these events helped us reach out to [more] people in our community.”
In the City of Angels, Levitt Pavilion Los Angeles engages community partners through multiple lawn activations at its MacArthur Park location during concert season, introducing families to resources and artmaking activities courtesy of iconic institutions like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Music Center as well as grassroots nonprofits like Self-Help Graphics, LA Commons, the Koreatown Youth + Community Center, Mujeres de la Tierra, and Heart of Los Angeles.
“This is an important way Levitt LA encourages families, and all in attendance, to stay connected to the many artistic resources that create the diverse cultural fabric of our city,” says Allegra Padilla, Levitt LA’s Director of Community Relations & Partnerships.
Festivals Offer New Discoveries
Through combining cultural celebrations with community partnerships, Levitt venues also played host to numerous festivals as part of their robust concert schedules.
Both Levitt Denver and Levitt SteelStacks presented free, day-long reggae festivals this past summer, and both were among the venues’ biggest draws. At Levitt Denver, the Cool Vibes Reggae Festival returned for its second year, featuring legendary Jamaican groups Black Uhuru and Third World alongside emerging U.S. reggae artists Indubious and Lea Love. Levitt SteelStacks debuted its inaugural One Earth ReggaeFest, a celebration of Jamaican music, food, and culture presented in partnership with community arts organization Movement Moves Media, a BIPOC-led nonprofit committed to creating community through music and the arts.
Levitt LA hosted multiple festivals showcasing the cultures of some of the city’s larger ethnic communities. The GuateAma event, for example, was a multifaceted celebration of Guatemalan culture, and included the West Coast debut of 12-year-old Guatemalan piano prodigy Yajaira Tubac in addition to other celebrated Guatemalan artists, and featured food trucks and cultural dance performances. Levitt LA also presented the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture in partnership with FilAm Arts, which featured live music from artists like rapper Ruby Ibarra and band Pinay Voltron; art installations; dance performances; and a children’s storytelling session presented by the Philippine Expressions Bookshop.
“The Philippine Festival has a 30-year history, yet was dormant for five years,” notes Levitt LA’s Padilla. “The opportunity for it to be held at the Levitt Pavilion was an extension of the deep ties this community has in the area. Historic Filipinotown is adjacent to MacArthur Park, and there are many ties through the labor and immigration movements that connect to the Latino culture and others.”
Another example of place-based programming that connected cultures was found in South Dakota, where Levitt Shell Sioux Falls partnered with the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation to present the Innoskate Festival at Levitt at the Falls. An event designed to explore connections between music, skateboarding, and creativity, Innoskate Sioux Falls 2022 encompassed both a three-day event in Sioux Falls, where there is a robust skateboarding community, and a full day of activities and programming presented in collaboration with the Oglala Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the sport is a popular activity among youth. The festival drew 15,000 people, including youth from Pine Ridge, to the Levitt for a pop-up skatepark, panels, a muralist art alley, and musical performances from the likes of hip-hop artist Dessa performing with the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra.
Reflecting on the reach of Levitt Sioux Falls in the region, Jeff Brodie, Deputy Director of the Smithsonian Lemelson Center of Invention & Innovation, shares that: “Innoskate Sioux Falls was, by far, the most compelling, largest, and most impactful Innoskate event we have ever presented.”
Uplifting Local Artists
While many Levitt concerts this past season helped open audiences’ ears to music from around the world, the concerts also helped shine a light on artists closer to home.
Levitt Arlington’s year-old Share the Stage program, for example, recruited musicians from all over north Texas as opening acts, providing welcome exposure for homegrown artists. As Levitt Arlington’s Teykl explains: “We would hear from people that they dreamed of being able to play at the Levitt, but had never had a chance to perform. The Share the Stage program gives people a chance to live that dream.” With local followings, many of these opening acts drew enthusiastic audiences, and Teykl recalls hearing from a band whose Spotify streams had increased by 30% since performing at the Levitt. Encouraging that sort of community participation is key for the Levitt Arlington team. As Teykl and her team often ask: “What are we doing to let the community and our local artists know that the Levitt is theirs?”
Likewise, in Connecticut, Levitt Pavilion Westport continued to play host to a wealth of local cultural gems, featuring performances by the Westport Community Band, the Connecticut Ballet, and Westport’s famed Staples High School music programs on its stage. The venue also presented its annual tribute to first responders, raising funds for the Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Services, and welcoming the (almost) all-physician local rock band DNR as headliners.
At Levitt Sioux Falls, forging connections with the sizable Indigenous communities who call South Dakota home has always been a priority, and this summer was no exception. Most notably, a return performance by the famed South Dakota-based Native American rock band Brulé drew an audience of nearly 10,000. “It speaks to the importance of Native American culture, and the joy that people take in it,” Levitt Sioux Falls Communications Director Rose Ann Hofland told Fox’s Dakota News Now. “It’s wonderful to celebrate all of our wonderful local talent, and the beautiful Native American traditions that are so rich in our state.”
Levitt AMP Series Brings Joy to Small Towns & Mid-Sized Cities
The 18 nonprofits that brought the 2022 Levitt AMP Music Series to life hailed from small to mid-sized towns and cities, ranging from the rural communities of Whitesburg, Ky. (pop. 1,679) and Earlham, Iowa (pop. 1,417), to mid-sized state capitals like Springfield, Ill. and Carson City, Nev. The Levitt AMP program shares many of the same hallmarks as the Levitt venue program, leveraging the power of free music to activate public spaces, including parks and downtowns, and strengthen the social fabric of communities. Each AMP grantee brought joy and togetherness to their respective communities, with well over 160,000 people enjoying free concerts at AMP sites across the country.
Engaging New Audiences
Essential to the mission of the Levitt AMP grant program is the notion that free concerts and public spaces belong to the entire community, and many AMP grantees focused on increasing outreach to engage wider portions of the community. CREATE Portage County in Stevens Point, Wis., for example, focused outreach efforts on engaging the local Southeast Asian community with its summer series along the river in Pfiffner Park, culminating in enthusiastic audience turnout for Hmong hip-hop artists Chenning and Surpryze. In Springfield, Ill., the Downtown Springfield Heritage Foundation focused on more intentional outreach to the capital city’s Black, Latinx, and Asian communities through multi-lingual marketing efforts and new community partnerships, which resulted in dramatic increases in attendance for its Levitt AMP Springfield Music Series. Earlham Chicks With Checks in Earlham, Iowa, redoubled its efforts to increase access to its Levitt AMP series with expanded disabled parking, onsite sign language interpreters, and outreach to the more rural nearby communities which traditionally lack access to live music. And in Utica, NY, Levitt AMP Utica continued to engage with its vast refugee community through intermission performances featuring refugee artists like a Burmese hip-hop group and through its Levitteen internship program, which counted refugee youth among its members.
The Levitt AMP nonprofits behind the Gallup, New Mexico and Soldotna, Alaska music series increased efforts to build relationships with tribal communities, recognizing the history of the land where their music series take place. Gallup MainStreet Arts and Cultural District continued to develop its series in concert with the community’s large Indigenous communities, advertising on Navajo-language radio stations and newspapers, and offering a concert slate heavy on Indigenous artists, including local acts and Albuquerque synth-pop sister trio Lindy Vision, which attracted the series’ largest audience of the season. And Vision Soldotna continued to experience multi-generational and multi-cultural growth among its audiences, based in part on expanded efforts to reach local Indigenous communities and elderly residents through personalized outreach.
For Shenandoah Junction, WV, some literal “outreach” from performers helped to bring audiences further into the fold. Jefferson County Parks and Recreation’s Becki Zaglifa recalls one unforgettable moment from this past season when “phat blues” bandleader Kelly Bell surprised an audience member with a chance to join the band for a harmonica solo—and the local blew the crowd away. “It was one of those moments that truly shows how the Levitt AMP Shenandoah Junction Music Series connects people to music and to each other,” she says.
A few Levitt AMP grantees continued the recent tradition of programming concerts in offsite locations (first started during the pandemic) to engage new audiences. Trenton, NJ’s Trenton Downtown Association, for example, which typically presents the Levitt AMP Music Series in its downtown location at Mill Hill Park, presented a concert featuring Swing Sabroso in Unity Square Park, a growing Latinx neighborhood, and then followed up by staging a Latin music concert at Mill Hill Park at the end of the season. And St. Johnsbury, Vt.’s Catamount Arts staged monthly “Final Fridays” concerts offsite in its downtown, expanding their Levitt AMP Music Series audience while helping local businesses recover from the lingering effects of the pandemic.
Deepening Partnerships, Launching New Ones
Numerous AMP sites found new ways to forge partnerships within their communities, helping to further weave these music series into the social and economic fabric of their towns. Ocala, Fla.’s series in Webb Field, presented by the Marion Cultural Alliance, participated in its first Juneteenth event in partnership with the city’s local Juneteenth organizing committee, featuring a performance by Natu Camara, as part and parcel of the nonprofit’s overriding aim to create “One Ocala” uniting the city’s various neighborhoods. In Utica, NY, Utica Monday Night’s Levitt AMP series opened its season with a Juneteenth concert featuring Levitt National Tour artists The New Respects that was the culmination of a weeklong citywide celebration, and closed with a Hispanic Heritage event in partnership with a local Latinx association headlined by Eh Shawnee and ZZ Trio; these two concerts drew the largest crowds of the summer.
Partnerships to support youth were also a focus. In Galva, Ill., the Galva Arts Council partnered with the local school district to launch a pilot program to bring touring musicians into local schools as part of its efforts to continue music programming year-round on its new permanent stage, funded by local donors who recognized the impact of the Levitt AMP Galva Music Series. Springfield’s Levitt AMP Music Series created new partnerships with local youth dance companies to present intermission dance performances in a wide range of dance styles, including Bollywood, African, and Salsa. And in Berea, Ky., First Friday Berea’s partnership with local organization Kids Eat Berea brought a “kids eat free” program to the music series, resulting in increased youth attendance as they stayed for the shows.
Layering arts experiences on top of the music through partnerships with local organizations continued at various AMP locations, with highlights including Levitt AMP presenter Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, Vt., partnering with the St. Johnsbury Community Hub to enliven its space on Dog Mountain even further with free artmaking activities, public art exhibits, and children’s games. In Sheboygan, Wis., the John Michael Kohler Arts Center partnered with local arts organizations to bring workshops and activities to its outdoor “STUDIO” arts tent every week on City Green, where their concerts take place, while headlining artists participated in school visits, dance lessons, and community discussions throughout the summer.
Inspiring New Investments
As a testament to the positive impact of Levitt AMP concerts across the country, this past season also saw additional investments in public spaces to create more sustainable communities. NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, for example, the nonprofit behind the Levitt AMP Woonsocket Music Series in Woonsocket, RI, hailed the construction of affordable housing and commercial space in the once vacant areas adjacent to River Island Art Park, the site of the Levitt AMP series. As its summer attendance doubled from previous years, NeighborWorks looks forward to the park becoming an even more resonant cultural hub as new residents and businesses move in. In Carson City, Nev., talks with the city are underway to invest in creating a more permanent public space for its Levitt AMP Music Series, which takes place on presenter’s Brewery Arts Center campus and regularly attracts audiences in the thousands.
A Place for Healing
As was the case during Covid, sometimes the value of a community asset like Levitt AMP becomes more poignant in challenging times, and so it proved for the rural town of Whitesburg, Ky. While the Cowan Community Center-presented Levitt AMP Music Series got off to a fantastic start, drawing a record-high audience for GRAMMY-winner Suzy Bogguss in late June, one month later catastrophic flooding brought daily life in Whitesburg and the surrounding communities to a standstill. Some might have called off the rest of the series, but the Cowan folks managed to salvage the last three concerts on the schedule at a makeshift new location, giving the town’s beleaguered residents a welcome bit of respite from the arduous recovery process. “The basic thing is, we just thought folks needed it,” says Levitt AMP Whitesburg coordinator Steven Ruth. “We will be going into the next year with the idea that this is going to be a long-term healing process for a lot of people, and this [series] is going to be a part of it.”
Just over 80 miles away, fellow AMP grantee Middlesboro Main Street in Middlesboro, Ky. demonstrated inspiring neighborly spirit, raising more than $5,000 to aide Whitesburg during fundraisers at its Levitt AMP Music Series.
Another example of the special role Levitt AMP plays in communities was found in Fort Smith, Arkansas, home to a community of former Louisiana residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. A last-minute Levitt AMP Fort Smith cancellation this summer left Talicia Richardson, Executive Director of 64.6 Downtown, crowdsourcing local musicians in search of a replacement. She found one in New Orleans’ To Be Continued Brass Band, who stepped in and provided a riveting show that resonated especially for the city’s Louisiana community.
“At the end of the day, no one in the audience knew what we had to go through,” Richardson says. “And to see photos of people up, dancing, enjoying themselves, people from the 9th Ward of New Orleans who relocated to the area after Katrina sitting in the front row… Just a wide array of people of different hues sitting in the audience and enjoying the music. It really was a meeting on the lawn with friends and family.”
Looking back on this concert season, one can find countless similar stories of resilience, serendipity, and connection, with the power of free music uniting people of all ages and backgrounds in towns and cities across the country. While the 2022 season fades into the rearview mirror, plans are already underway for 2023, in which the Levitt network will continue to grow with grantee partners in new locations, deeper community partnerships, and myriad opportunities to dance, celebrate, connect, and build community through music. We can’t wait to see you all back on the lawn next year!