Annenberg Fellowship boosts performing, visual artists ready to launch their careers

Recording an album right out of school was something violinist Francesca dePasquale never thought she’d have the financial means to do. But thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Leonore Annenberg Arts Fellowship Fund, the newly minted Juilliard School graduate’s big dream became a reality.

“Over two years, I was able to record my debut album and organize a recital tour, as well as continue to grow artistically by pursuing lessons through master classes,” says dePasquale, a Philadelphia-area native who’s been playing violin since she was 3. “It also covered the costs of instrument maintenance, some living expenses, and some travel.”

DePasquale credits the Fellowship, which is administered by Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), as “one of the greatest gifts” of her life.

“It’s been truly a life-changing experience,” she says.

The Leonore Annenberg Arts Fellowship for the Performing and Visual Arts was established in 2008, a year before Leonore Annenberg, a businesswoman, government official, and longtime arts and education philanthropist, passed away. Created as a 10-year wasting endowment, the Fellowship has awarded $6 million to 70 fellows in the performing and visual arts, including the likes of Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre’s first African-American female principal dancer; bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green; and actor André Holland of the TV series “The Knick” and film “Moonlight.”

“It’s meant for talented, young artists who are completing their formal training and making a valued effort to launch their career,” says Gail Levin, the Fellowship’s director, who previously served as the Annenberg Foundation’s executive director. “For instance, when we took on Misty Copeland back in 2008 as part of our first cohort, she was anything but a household name. She’s now become a superstar in her field.”

The fellows are nominated by one of the program’s 25 partner organizations, which span the country. In dePasquale’s case, she was nominated by New York City’s Perlman Music Program.

“The Perlman Music Program helped me prepare a plan and budget, which are required with our applications,” dePasquale says. “The great thing about the Fellowship is it allowed me to dream.”

Ruibo Qian, sponsored by Lincoln Center Theater, was named a fellow in early April, along with seven additional rising artists—the initiative’s final cohort. Qian, a writer and actress, is planning to use her Fellowship for a variety of movement and performance classes, one-on-one voice and audition coaching, supplies to create her own work, and travel.

“The Fellowship has come at such a pivotal point in my career, as I’m finessing how to navigate the professional world post-graduate school, and juggling the financial responsibilities that come with a life as an artist,” she says. “Financial constraints take a considerable toll on my ability to feel free and confident in my creativity, so this is an enormous blessing to have the opportunity—for the first time—to take this year and solely focus on the growth of my career.”

By design, every Fellowship recipient is required to have a mentor through the institution or school organization through which they were nominated.

“We mentor the Fellowship artists very closely,” says Clint Jukkala, dean of the School of Fine Arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, another Fellowship partner organization. “With 2014 fellow Mia Rosenthal, her mentor Harry Philbrick, PAFA’s museum director at the time, our President David Brigham, and I took a team approach to help her really think about her next steps in her professional visual arts career.”

Levin says it’s the close mentoring, as well as the professional plan and detailed budget, that has made the program so successful over the years.

“We are very disciplined when it comes to guiding them in that preparation,” she says. “It’s what sets us apart.”

For the past decade, the Annenberg Arts Fellowship’s selection council has consisted of Levin; Michael X. Delli Carpini, a professor in and dean of Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication; Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an Annenberg School professor and director of the APPC; Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York; and Diane Deshong, Leonore Annenberg’s daughter and a Penn alumna.

That same council is charged with operating two additional branches of Leonore Annenberg’s 10-year initiative: The School Fund for Children, which has dedicated $7 million in educational resources to public elementary schools serving students in impoverished areas, and the College Scholarship Fund, which, when all is said and done, will have provided $9.4 million in four-year scholarships to high-achieving students who have overcome challenging circumstances.

Isabelle Tersio, a Biological Basis of Behavior major with plans to go to medical school, says coming to Penn wasn’t even on her radar before she received the Annenberg Scholarship.

“I was planning to just stay in Florida for financial reasons,” says Tersio, now a junior. “But this scholarship really allowed me to venture out and pursue a different opportunity.”

The three funds collectively make up the Leonore Annenberg Scholarship, Fellowship, and School Funds, and although they’ve catered to a diverse group of people, the funds have all embodied the values and passions Leonore Annenberg “had been vested in for a lifetime,” says Levin. “She was always drawn to improving and enhancing those parts of society.”

Misty Copeland