Strathmore CEO of 38 years announces retirement


Pfanstiehl will step down in August, but plans to remain involved in the local arts community. Photo courtesy Strathmore.

By Zoe Kaufmann

Strathmore CEO Eliot Pfanstiehl announced Jan. 25 that he plans to retire in August after 38 years at the head of the arts organization.

Pfanstiehl began working with Strathmore’s Board of Directors to develop and expand the Strathmore Mansion’s arts program in 1985 while he worked as the arts coordinator for the Montgomery County Recreation Department. At the time, Strathmore hosted small chamber music events and arts exhibits.

The lack of large art programs in Montgomery County drove the partnership between the Recreation Department and Strathmore, Pfanstiehl said, and his main goal was for Strathmore to be able to compete with bigger arts events in Washington.

“I grew up in Montgomery County thinking all the arts were downtown in DC,” Pfanstiehl said. “That’s no longer the case. They’re now throughout the region, and particularly Montgomery County has a very rich palate of arts for families and for adults.”

Under his leadership, the arts organization grew to include the Music Center at Strathmore, a wide array of visual arts, music and arts education programs and partnerships with local music groups and institutions.

These partnerships have connected Montgomery County residents to the concert hall and the local arts community, Pfanstiehl said. One example is the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra, an advanced group of orchestras for middle and high school students, which has multiple performances at the Music Center at Strathmore every year.

Strathmore’s partnership with MCYO has allowed the orchestra to play in a nicer venue than other youth orchestras, which usually perform in community spaces like churches, sophomore Becca Marr said.

“The acoustics are great,” Marr, a violist with MCYO, said. “It’s a lot bigger [and] there’s more audience space. It’s just designed very nicely—better than most.”

The relationship with MCYO is just one way Strathmore has worked to increase access to the arts, Pfanstiehl said. Strathmore also hosts concerts for MCPS second and fifth graders and works closely with MCPS teachers to assist arts education initiatives in schools. Art education is important because it fosters imagination and creativity, Pfanstiehl said.

“Imagination is given to every child—the question is when do they lose it, not when did they have it, ” Pfanstiehl said. “If you don’t get it in an arts education, you have to either trip over it later in life or you run into the part of life where you’re just so darn busy you can’t pay attention to your own imagination.”

These forms of creative thinking and imagination can complement more traditional educational processes, Pfanstiehl said.

“[In STEM,] what you still don’t necessarily have is the ability to conceive of a non-existent future, in other words, to see a preferred future that doesn’t exist yet so you know what to invent,” Pfanstiehl said. “The arts part of it is how you innovate, where you get the idea from, how you break free of just doing the same old thing. Aside from that, it’s just plain good for the human spirit.”

Over the years, Pfanstiehl’s direction molded the creative ethos that Strathmore is known for. Throughout his 38 year career, he never seriously considered changing jobs because it was never boring and there was always another project to work on, he said.

Despite his impending retirement, Pfanstiehl plans to remain involved with the arts in Montgomery County, he said.

“I will be volunteering, I’m sure, with lots of things, and certainly if Strathmore ever wants my advice or help or assistance, I will be there. I’m not retiring, I’m redeploying,” Pfanstiehl said. “The difference between working now and retirement is that I will now be able to choose everything I do. When you’re working, there are things you just have to do. I’m looking forward to the time when I can just decide.”