An arts and culture executive from Vancouver, British Columbia, has been tapped to lead Madison’s Downtown arts center as its new president and CEO, officials for the Overture Center for the Arts announced Monday.
Sandra Gajic, who will be the first woman to lead the Overture Center, most recently was director of Vancouver Civic Theatres, where she developed and implemented a new business model for four theaters owned and operated by the city of Vancouver.
“We had told the search team from the beginning, ‘We’re willing to think outside the box,’” the head of the Overture Center Foundation board of directors, Betty Custer, said about the process of finding a replacement for Ted DeDee, who retired in May.
“We have our first woman in a leadership capacity, and we have somebody who’s had considerable experience,” both in the arts and in business, Custer said.
Gajic, 64, was selected from a tight field of candidates for her “decisive leadership,” collaborative style, emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and skill in attracting audiences from the millennial generation, Custer said.
“She cares deeply about the arts being integrated into the community, and not being separate from the community,” she said. She’s “just a very gifted person who brings to us a lot of varied experiences.”
Born in the former Yugoslavia, Gajic (pronounced “guy-itsch”) began her career in furniture manufacturing, then moved to the United Kingdom and worked in public health administration. She went into the arts and culture field in Canada, where she spent 16 years as operations manager at Canadian Opera Company, worked as general manager and interim CEO at Arts Commons in Calgary, and served as CEO of the Edmonton Opera.
“What I’ve come here to do (is) completed. I was hired here to be an agent of change,” Gajic explained in a phone interview from Vancouver.
“I am happy here and I could stay here and eventually get a government pension,” she said. “But I want to make a difference.”
After helping to grow the performing arts as part of Vancouver’s city government, she is eager to work with a nonprofit such as Overture, said Gajic, who will begin her new job Sept. 24. She loves fundraising — a key part of running a nonprofit — because “it’s all based on relationships,” she said.
Gajic has two adult children, including a son who lives in the United States and a daughter who married last week in the Canadian Rockies. The daughter of a diplomat, Gajic speaks six languages — her favorite is Italian — is a passionate opera fan, and admits to being a “very bad” pianist who practices on a piano outfitted with headphones so only she can hear it, she said.
A wave of retirements among Baby Boomer-age CEOs of performing arts centers made the search committee’s job challenging, said Custer, and several candidates for the Madison position dropped out during the interview process as they were scooped up by rival recruiters.
Gajic’s hiring was not made public until a visa could be secured for her, said Custer, who said that process confirmed for her the value of Gajic’s selection.
“In early June we had to assemble all the (documents), and as board chair, I was the one to sign them,” Custer said. “So I’d gotten all these letters of recommendation and all the comments from people in the profession who were testifying to her uniqueness. That’s one of the things you have to prove to immigration — that this person is bringing to us a unique skill set.”
Gajic, who said her first priority in Madison will be to get to know the community, will lead an Overture staff of more than 300. Broadening Overture’s impact will be a priority.
Ultimately her goal is “widening the net in the community,” Gajic said. “I do believe the role of the performing arts center has to be outside its walls.”
Composed of seven performance spaces and five galleries, the Overture Center at 201 State St. is home to 10 resident companies including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Opera, Children’s Theater of Madison, Kanopy Dance and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and in 2018-19 will host seven touring Broadway shows, plus many other ticketed and free events.