People Who Make NY Special

Setting the Tone at Lincoln Center

In handpicking all of the musicians who perform at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, Jordana Phokompe responds to—and shapes—the tastes of millions of New Yorkers.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Yatarola

Jordana Phokompe has overseen the programming and execution of hundreds of free shows in her role as the director of the David Rubenstein Atrium, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’s year-round stage for free performances. Her tastes and considerations contribute to how many, if not most, New Yorkers experience Lincoln Center: The venue’s schedule includes a weekly Thursday evening concert series (Atrium 360°), monthly LC Kids Saturday morning family programs, plus ongoing series such as video premieres with VICE Media and ¡VAYA! 63, a monthly show devoted to Latin music and culture around the city.

As part of her curatorial rounds, Phokompe visits clubs and festivals around New York and farther afield in search of the next big thing. She managed, though, to slow her busy schedule just long enough to tell WSWD more about how she selects her artists, her dream performers, and her favorite places to hear live music (besides the Atrium!).

What Should We Do?!: How did you get started presenting live performances?
Jordana Phokompe: Years ago, while studying abroad in East Africa, I saw how artists there used the performing arts to address social issues and harness creative spaces into their engine for change. When I returned to the States, I decided to devote myself to learning how to engage that power in my own community. I’m proud to see how the David Rubenstein Atrium—and Lincoln Center as a whole—is building and strengthening New York by preparing a space for the city’s many local residents to transcend language and culture through shared experience.

WSWD: What sort of artist performs on any given week at the Atrium?
Phokompe: Our programming is mostly contemporary and always high quality, but can change styles dramatically based on any number of factors. One week we’ll present Meklit Hadero, an Ethiopia-born, San Francisco–based singer-songwriter; the next week will feature a performance by Jasper String Quartet playing compositions by both Beethoven and Missy Mazzoli. Our aim is to represent the diversity and strength of the voices of our city, with particular attention to currently underserved and underrepresented communities.

WSWD: How do you know if an artist is right for the Atrium?
Phokompe: We need to walk the line of presenting an artist who has a meaningful following, but not someone who is just too popular. It isn’t fair to the artist or their fans to book an event that will draw thousands when the venue can only seat a few hundred. Practical matters aside, artistic excellence is always my biggest concern. When I watch a performance, I pay close attention to the artist’s stage presence, their audience engagement, and who is in that audience. Does the performance move me? Does it move the crowd? My final litmus test before booking an artist is if I would be personally proud to present their work. If the answer is yes, then I’ll make the offer to have them play at the Atrium. I’m never disappointed.

WSWD: How does the American political climate affect your booking?
Phokompe: This year I’m particularly focused on how we can properly present and support the work of immigrant and international artists. The arts are facing many new challenges these days, from visas being denied to potential funding cuts, but I find myself energized by the response from my fellow programmers. Just recently at SXSW, colleagues of mine built a showcase exclusively featuring artists affected by the proposed Muslim travel ban. It was an opportunity to see the beauty inherent in those individual artists’ culture and also how we as a creatively active nation will not be separated from the rest of the world.

Photo courtesy of Roger Sewhcomar

WSWD: Who are some dream artists you’d love to hear at the Atrium?
Phokompe: They all draw way too big a crowd for me to responsibly book them here, but it’s my dream, right? Probably Angélique Kidjo, Hugh Masekela, and David Byrne. The music of each had a huge impact on me personally when I was growing up, and they are continuing to push the boundaries. Kidjo, Masekela, and Byrne are just as relevant today as they were 20 to 30 years ago; that kind of creative longevity is hard to come by.

WSWD: Where else do you like to see live music in the city?
Phokompe: My job requires that I see artists all over the city, but I particularly love attending shows at (Le) Poisson Rouge, Joe’s Pub, Rockwood Music Hall, and BRIC. One of the real joys of living in New York City is all the amazing summer festivals. Once the weather gets a bit warmer, you can count on seeing me out at Celebrate Brooklyn!, SummerStage, Lincoln Center’s very own outdoor dance party (Midsummer Night Swing), and the three weeks of free concerts and events that comprise Lincoln Center Out of Doors.