MA Top 30 Professional: Blake-Anthony Johnson
By Emery Kerekes
December 6, 2022
Since its first concerts in 1987, the Chicago Sinfonietta has codified diversity and equity into its mission and programming. Under President and CEO Blake-Anthony Johnson, appointed in May 2020, the orchestra continues to ensure that it reaches Chicagoans of all walks of life without barriers.
Recently named one of Crain’s Chicago Business’s “40 Under 40” (“40 incredible individuals who are both wildly accomplished and poised to do even bigger things”), Johnson last season
implemented a pay-what-you-can ticketing model for all concerts. The move has earned high praise, with acknowledgements from The New York Times and Chicago Tribune and imitators throughout the country—Lincoln Center has adopted a similar system for some of its concerts, including last summer’s Mostly Mozart series. Johnson and the Sinfonietta take immense pride in leading the field. “Innovation is an endless process that our team has displayed from the very beginning of my tenure,” he says.
Johnson has also greatly expanded Chicago Sinfonietta’s outreach. The group recently launched its RASA (Rehabilitation and Student Achievement) Project, which provides year-round education and entertainment to students in Chicago’s juvenile correctional facilities. It also revamped its Freeman Fellowships (named for founder Paul Freeman) in orchestral playing, composition, conducting, and administration and launched an online portal to connect alumni. “The success of our Fellows, and the sheer reach of their work,” says Johnson, “has challenged us to use technology to support them and their work.”
Major funders are starting to take notice. In July 2022, the Sinfonietta won its fourth Mellon Foundation grant in a decade—this time, $1 million to support ongoing community partnerships. It was also the only classical music institution to receive a Wallace Foundation grant this year. Johnson, recently named as a Daniel Burnham Fellow of Leadership Greater Chicago for his “esteemed civic leadership,” knows that the Sinfonietta can continue to change classical music for the better: “Leading innovation and excitement among and beyond our field is our history but also our future.”
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