Growing the audience of tomorrow
For Cal Performances outreach manager, arts are a family tradition

By Fernando Quintero



Laura Abrams helps to introduce Bay Area school children and the public to Cal Performances’ rich offerings.
Peg Skorpinski photo

05 December 2001 | Being education and community programs manager for Cal Performances seems like the perfect job for Laura Abrams. Art appreciation — particularly music — runs in her blood.

Abrams, who is responsible for exposing Bay Area school children and the public to Cal Performances’ rich artistic offerings, comes from a family of music business owners and promoters.

The “East Coast side of the family” founded the Sam Ash Music Stores. “If you’re from New York, you know them. It’s a large chain of musical instrument stores started in 1924 by my grandparents and now run by my mom’s side of the family,” says Abrams, adding that her late grandfather also played violin, albeit “badly.” Her husband, George Wolffsohn, is a professionally trained singer who teaches pre-school.

One of her uncles also founded the Universal Jazz Coalition in a converted loft in New York’s SoHo district. “The first non-smoking jazz club in the city,” Abrams says proudly.

The popular jazz venue became a training ground for Abrams, who assisted in promoting the Women in Jazz Festival, and met such jazz greats there as Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie.

Her family connection to the arts, plus roots in Berkeley and the New York art scene, give Abrams special satisfaction in bringing the arts to Bay Area students and their teachers through specially scheduled daytime performances at Zellerbach Hall. That program, SchoolTime, is one of several she oversees at Cal Performances, where she works in the community to inspire and sustain a lifelong relationship with the performing arts.

West Coast roots
Abrams grew up in Berkeley, where her father, Professor Richard Abrams, has taught American history on campus since 1961. “My earliest memories are of Dwinelle Hall and dropping my father off at work,” Abrams recalls.

After graduating magna cum laude in art history from UCLA in 1984, Abrams went on to earn a master’s degree in arts administration from New York University. While in New York, she worked as a company manager for the New York State Council of the Arts and as development officer for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From 1988 to 1991, she was an arts management consultant, doing project administration and events management for such clients as the Juilliard School and the New York City High School for the Performing Arts, the setting for the 1980 feature film, “Fame.”

Upon her return to Berkeley, Abrams joined Cal Performances as program administrator and assistant to Director Robert Cole. She soon found herself in the role of chief administrator of Cal Performances’ Berkeley Festival & Exhibition, a biennial week-long celebration of early music. After eight years in the director’s office, her experience with SchoolTime led her to her current position.

‘Growing’ tomorrow’s audience
When world-class artists such as the Peking Acrobats or the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform at Zellerbach, SchoolTime provides curricular material to help students appreciate the work. It also teaches young students about theater etiquette and methods of observation.

“We’re growing the audience of the future. That’s the saying around here,” Abrams says.

Teachers have also come to realize that “the arts boost learning in all fields,” she says. “In addition, we want Bay Area kids to see Cal as a destination.”

Beginning in January, Cal Performances will join the Berkeley Unified School District as the only northern California team chosen to participate in the Partners in Education Program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The program, which fosters partnerships among arts organizations, schools and communities, will expand SchoolTime activities to include professional development workshops for teachers, in-school visits by artists, and comprehensive study guides. This new initiative, Cal Peformances in the Classroom, begins with a study of “dignity in the face of oppression” through the study of Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece, “Revelations.”

Cal Performances initiatives also include artist residencies for the community, schools and senior centers; Sightlines panel discussions, pre-concert lectures and open rehearsals; and half-price tickets, for children, to Family Fare weekend matinees.

Abrams’ own children have joined the ranks of young Cal Performances audience members. “My two-year-old daughter, Sylvia, is still too young. But my six-year-old, Adriana, is really beginning to look forward to Cal Performances events.”

Adds Abrams: “I’ve got a family tradition to carry on.”


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