When she was doing programming work at the Kennedy Center, Shelley Brown took a bow for using a bow.
With little money in her budget and a big project to undertake -- dressing the center for its holiday festival -- she got ornament designer Christopher Radko to wrap the building in a big, red ribbon. The bow, first used in 1997, is now one of the most familiar sights in Washington during the holiday season.
"There was a joke that the Kennedy Center was the box that the Lincoln Memorial came in," Brown said.
After a series of unconventional promotional ideas for the Kennedy Center and helping to create its popular, wildly eclectic Millennium Stage concerts, Brown decided to work closer to her home in Bethesda as she raised a family. In 1998, she joined Strathmore Hall, a rising presence in the Washington arts world since the county opened the former mansion as an arts center in 1983.
Brown did marketing work before becoming vice president for programming last September. She will be an important factor in whether Strathmore's new $100 million concert center succeeds after it opens in February. To reshape Strathmore, which will have a 2,000-seat auditorium, as one of the top regional performing arts centers, Brown is hoping to draw from her experience at the Kennedy Center without mimicking its mission.
"We're not going to be the Kennedy Center in Montgomery County," she said.
Although Strathmore's performance hall intends to bring in nationally known acts, Brown also wants to promote local go-go, punk, jazz, folk and other artists. Many of them, she said, are relegated to small clubs in this region and must visit Philadelphia, New York or Boston for a concert-hall booking.
"I think we're going to have audiences for all of these concerts," Brown said. "I think we have a fairly liberal, somewhat sophisticated audience that doesn't need to see the same thing every time they attend."
Brown, 38, is already refashioning how Strathmore approaches its programming by creating the Washington Area Timeline Concert Series, which every Wednesday night highlights an aspect of the region's musical history. The series, which began in September, replaced another Wednesday night show that featured a random assortment of musicians.
"You can engage people more than one night, and it allows you to tell a bigger story about the arts," Brown said.
For the timeline shows, she hires local musicians who pay homage to their predecessors, such as saxophonist Ron Holloway playing a tribute to the late jazzman Stanley Turrentine.
The series also features the work of march composer John Philip Sousa, big-band leader Duke Ellington, country musician Jimmy Dean and doo-wop, folk, funk and punk bands that have a local connection.
So far, she said, attendance has averaged 45 people in the 60-seat room where it is held, with some concerts overflowing.
Brown and Eliot Pfanstiehl, Strathmore's president and chief executive officer, said they hope the timeline concerts create new patrons in time for the opening of the music and education center.
Brown, a Denver native, said she started working in the arts as a teenager "basically to get free tickets." Her interest in culture began as a child, when she went to the symphony with her mother and saw touring Broadway shows. She also took ballet and piano lessons.
Her father, a businessman and inventor, helped with practical advice. He made her submit a budget when she needed money in college, an annoyance then but a skill that became helpful in her career. She said arts administrators were more likely to approve her ideas when she came with a clear budget plan.
While at Connecticut College, she was an intern at Wolf Trap. Sampling Washington life led her to apply for a job in the Kennedy Center press office after her graduation in 1988.
She soon began doing programming work, and in 1997, her last year at the Kennedy Center, she worked on two major projects: the open house arts festival and the Millennium Stage.
In the late 1990s, she joined the board of the Washington Area Music Association, a group of musicians, concert promoters and others involved with music. She used her connections with the association to plan the Timeline Concert Series at Strathmore. She found some of the people she intended to honor, including bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens.
For the new center, she is modeling the programming after what she considers the successful approach taken by the Kennedy Center and other prominent arts facilities: bringing in artists under a unifying theme. For example, she has scheduled such singers as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Barbara Cook and Arlo Guthrie for the planned "Great American Song" series.
Strathmore is also keeping up with current events. Brown commissioned from Silver Spring-based composer David Kane a piece called "Emergence: A Cicada Serenade," to be presented July 29 on Strathmore's lawn. The concert will feature three other insect-inspired compositions, Benjamin Britten's "Two Insect Pieces," Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" and Grieg's "Papillon."
Brown said the cicada composition was a way to tap community talent and also take advantage of a phenomenon that people have been discussing. "And that," she said, "would then cause them to talk about us."
The Washington Area Timeline Concert Series runs every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Strathmore Hall, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda, 301-530-0540. Tickets are $10 but are free until Sept. 1, when concerts are held outdoors. A schedule is available at www.strathmore.org.