Sandra Gajic

Sandra Gajic, current director of Vancouver Civic Theatres, will be the next CEO of Overture Center for the Arts. She starts Sept. 24. 

To find its new CEO, Overture Center for the Arts went all the way to British Columbia.

Sandra Gajic (GUY-tch) is the current director of Vancouver Civic Theatres, four theater spaces and a plaza run by the city of Vancouver. Gajic is set to end that job on Sept. 21 and start work in Madison on Sept. 24.

“I work very fast,” Gajic said. “With everything going on in both places, it’s short notice for me.”

Gajic replaces Ted DeDee, Overture’s CEO since 2012, who retired in May.

Born in Yugoslavia, Gajic emigrated to Canada in 1990 by way of Libya and the U.K. She has two adult children and spent 16 years managing operations for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. She is fluent in six languages, including Serbo-Croatian, French, Spanish and Italian.

In Vancouver, she oversees 73 full-time employees, a similar number of part-time employees and 250 to 300 auxiliary or casual employees. As in Madison, the stagehands’ union (IATSE) works the theaters themselves. One of Gajic’s first tasks will be to find a replacement for Glenda Noel-Ney, the vice president for advancement who left in March.

Gajic spoke with The Capital Times by phone on Monday morning.

In Vancouver, it looks like you worked for the city and managed four separate theaters. What drew you to move to a private nonprofit and Madison itself?

I do miss working in the nonprofit sector. In my years in Canada, other than the last four years, I ran organizations in the nonprofit sector.

Working for the city is very different. There are elected officials, administration, and it’s sometimes wonderful and exciting, but at times the capacity’s just not there. I think for me personally it took me a bit to adjust to becoming a public servant in a different way. We exist because of that magic onstage and what it creates for people in our venues.

But in this case I could only push so far — change the business model, build a wonderful team, really build a structure that could take the theaters to the next stage of whatever they needed to do.

What attracted me to Madison was, the Overture has done the transition that I tried to implement in the four city theaters. I tried to implement that transition from being part of the municipal government into becoming a not-for-profit organization.

And there is no appetite for that level of change. Which is fine, in every place things are different. But when I heard finally that’s not going to be possible, I thought, I really have more of a drive to work with a community in a more meaningful way.

You recently presented a study in your city that said while Vancouver had the third largest live music industry in Canada, musicians and artists also struggled quite a bit with housing, and the income equity gap was significant.

How do you expect to translate some of the things you learned addressing that equity gap to the one Madison faces with access to the arts?

I was given two years ago to lead, on behalf of the city, a study on how to make Vancouver into a music-friendly city.

In terms of how to open the spaces to the community — and not just musicians but the community at large, social organizations too — I had to find a mechanism for us to waive rent. All the rates are determined by the council, and it’s against city charter for me to reduce them.

So two-and-a-half years ago I got approval for a project ... now it’s called the Civic Theatres Underutilized Spaces Grant. We were sitting on two smaller theaters, the Annex and the public plaza, that were hardly used at all. And once we opened a very simple process for organizations to apply for grants, the Annex is now at 95 percent usage. And it’s a 200-seat, beautiful new black box theater.

The same with the plaza, it changed hugely, we started a summer concert series. And the last space, the little Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, is a smaller space open to musicians.

Despite government processes and red tape, we did manage to do a lot. That’s what really drives me ... we had the luxury of space. And whoever is given the grant to use the space actually gets paid, and they are paying fair wages to musicians.

Overture Foundation board chair Betty Harris Custer mentioned in a press release that you are “skilled in diversity and inclusion” and “experienced in attracting millennials.” Can you talk about the background that she’s referencing there?

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, we changed the name of our public space to an indigenous name, giving it back, giving back the name that was taken away from that area of the city by the European settlers.

We had that ceremony on June 20. What used to be called Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza is now called šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ. It will be awhile before people start using it in everyday communication but it’s a wonderful part of taking action on reconciliation between the nations, between indigenous people and us that have come later as their guests.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, it could be changing signage to all are welcome, transgender (people) are welcome in washrooms, to really making sure that our staff reflect the demographics of the cities I’ve worked in. And when we present, when we talk about presenting, we don’t go into cultural appropriation.

There’s so many degrees of sensitive we have to be, and help people who are not there get there. That is part of being public servants.

When it comes to millennials, it’s thinking about programming that appeals to them, that reflects their wants and needs — time of starting, how we deal with ticketing, digital media, even the idea of subscriptions which most millennials are not in favor of. It’s about much more flexibility, openness.

Your predecessor, Ted De, brought the National Geographic Live series to Madison from his time at an Ohio arts center near Columbus. What kinds of programming would you like to see in future Overture seasons?

It’s funny — it took me three-and-a-half years to get the city’s approval to present National Geographic, so I will be leaving that legacy too.

I do have some ideas but I also really want to first get a better sense of the community. I’m not coming from a position of “I know it all.” I want to hear what my colleagues on the senior team and staff in general, what ideas they have. I believe in that 100 day rule, you need to listen more, watch, observe. ... I ask lots of questions.  

You spent 16 years managing operations for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Would you say that you have a passion for opera? Is it the closest art form to your heart?

What got me there is really that passion for opera. I was looking for work in that sector when I first emigrated to Canada.

One of my first memories of opera is ... I couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, sitting at my grandmother’s piano. She loved playing piano, she loved the opera, and she would sing and accompany herself. She sang horribly, but she would sing her favorite arias, didn’t matter man or woman, soprano or bass. And she would sing with such passion. She would cry! The feeling it would evoke in her, the sense of that emotion, stuck with me.

I studied music, and I’ve been an opera girl all my life. I am one of those crazy people who travel for opera, like to Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.”

But I love all the performing arts. People will get used to seeing me at the performances. That’s what I find the purpose of what I do, to really be there when stages are alive, wherever the stages are — the lobby, found spaces, in a warehouse. That’s what I love.

I happened upon a crazy story from 2016 about an infestation of rodents in some of the Vancouver theaters. How old are those buildings? Did the problem get fixed? And after experiencing that, do you think you could handle anything?

Yes! That’s one way of getting publicity and being on the front page of the newspaper.

To be very honest, they’re still there, the rodents, not to that degree. Part of the frustration is we are part of something called shared services, and all the operations and maintenance is done by a different department. There’s a high cost of running the buildings and it’s not very efficient.

The Orpheum (in Vancouver) is 91 years old, like the Capitol Theater, and it was also built as a vaudeville house. The Queen Elizabeth Theatre and Playhouse were 1959, and there’s a newer space that’s six years old. Whether they’re new spaces or old spaces, they do need good maintenance. You need to take care of your home. Getting the spaces to the place where they need to be has been difficult.

So the problem is still there. When something is wrong, we try to correct and fix and work on it. Sometimes you can do it, and sometimes you can’t.

In older theaters it was a common thing to have a theater cat! They increase service and there are fewer rodents, and then they reduce it again and there are more rodents. They’re fairly common in Vancouver.

What are you most looking forward to in Madison?

I can’t wait. It’s the excitement of getting to know a community that seems to me a real community.

I came to Madison two, three years ago, when Ted DeDee hosted an executive forum for those of us running arts centers in the states and Canada. It was my first experience of Madison and I loved it. I want to be part of it ... an exciting new beginning in a community that feels right to me, that cares.

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Since 2008, food editor Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, sparkling wine and good stories. She lives in Madison with two cats and too many cookbooks.