Sandra Gajic, president and CEO of Overture Center of the Arts for the past 14 months, has died following a recurrence of cancer that spread to her brain. She was 66.
“She loved being at Overture,” said Betty Harris Custer, president of the Overture Center Foundation’s Board of Directors. “She so embraced every part of this community. She cared deeply about Overture, and well beyond the walls of Overture. We’re better off for having her with us.”
Leading the arts center in her stead will be Christopher Vogel, who was named chief operations and finance officer earlier this week. Vogel’s promotion was one of the last decisions Gajic made, though discussion of having both a CEO and a COO began more than a year ago.
Gajic moved from Vancouver Civic Theatres in Vancouver, British Columbia to Madison in September 2018, succeeding outgoing CEO Ted DeDee. She immediately dove into the work, developing relationships with other arts leaders in town.
“We set up lunch every four to six weeks,” said Stephen Fleischman, director of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. “She hit the ground running. She was a good listener but at the same time she knew quickly what had to be done and addressed it.”
Emily Gruenwald, Overture’s vice president of development, joined Overture a few weeks after Gajic. The two quickly bonded over being “the new girls.”
“I came to Overture because of Sandra,” Gruenwald said. “I knew I wanted to work with her because of her incredible intelligence, her dynamic energy and her experience in the field. I knew she’d push me. She didn’t disappoint.”
By all accounts, Gajic was a driven, tireless worker, joking with colleagues that she “moved at the speed of Sandra.” She initiated an audit of Overture’s building which, after 15 years of intense foot traffic, showed signs of wear. Overture now has a 30-year estimate of what its capital replacement needs are going to be.
“I loved her intrepid nature and of course, that she was a women in the arts, and an immigrant!” wrote Samantha Crownover, executive director of the chamber music group Bach Dancing & Dynamite. “I was hopeful she would be able to reach populations in Madison that had not yet been touched by the programming at Overture Center.
“She moved quickly to implement some changes,” Crownover added. “And when moving too quickly for some of the resident companies, she’d pause and be open to feedback.”
One early change, designed to make Overture feel more welcoming to patrons, was keeping the bars open longer and offering more food for sale.
“It made it feel like a more sociable and warm environment for anybody to spend time in,” said Jennifer Uphoff Gray. Gray is the founder and artistic director of Forward Theater Company and chair of the Resident Company Advisory Board.
“I loved that she had such a dynamic, roll up her sleeves energy,” said Uphoff Gray. “It’s impossible believe she’s only been here for 15 months. She got an awful lot accomplished and more started during this time.
“There are so many exciting things she was starting to work on that she now does not get to see to fruition. It seems profoundly unfair.”
Born in Yugoslavia, Gajic emigrated to Canada in 1990 by way of Libya and the U.K. She joined the Canadian Opera Company and spent 16 years there. According to a news release, from 2008 to 2011 Gajic worked for EPCOR CENTRE for Performing Arts. She spent two years with the Edmonton Opera Association, became executive director of the Shumka Dancers in 2013, and became director of Vancouver Civic Theatres in 2014.
Gajic has two adult children. She was diagnosed with cancer in the spring, but she wasn’t inclined to slow down. Custer believed she once put in 50 hours of work in a week from her hospital bed.
“She never quit,” said Custer. “Even during her hospitalizations, the people at University Hospital — they’d laugh about the times when she would have a sign up on the door that she was in a meeting and no one should bother her.”
Custer remembers when, visiting Gajic in the hospital, a doctor tapped on the door and opened it a crack. Gajic shooed the doctor away.
“She said, ‘I’m meeting with my board chair. Could you come back in 20 minutes?’ That epitomized her so well,” Custer said. “She had her priorities straight, and she expected other people to fit in that prioritization.”
Gajic was in the process of getting a visa so she could stay in the United States. She’d been working to establish her executive team and to move forward Overture’s equity and innovation programming. Her death comes during the final week out of three of “Hamilton,” the powerhouse Broadway musical.
The Overture board will have a special meeting on Monday to determine next steps, Custer said, but she’s confident in the strength of the executive team. The lights in the rotunda may dim for a time in Gajic’s honor.
Gajic had wanted Overture to be a place where people could see something different, something “you can only see at Overture,” Custer said — “that we don’t have to be like every other performing arts center of the same size, that we can be special.”
“She laid the groundwork,” Custer said. “We were all looking forward to many more years of her taking us through that path. We will have to do it without her.”
“She’s just an extraordinarily smart and witty woman,” Uphoff Gray said. “She was so funny, and so hard-working. When I look at what she accomplished in her short time here it makes me sad about all the things she won’t see.”