Arts Visionaries in Edmonton Part I

Arts Visionaries in Edmonton is a mini-series of several interviews which have been conducted with notable leaders in Edmonton’s arts community. By sharing these interviews, and the thoughts and opinions of some of the city’s strongest leaders, The Wanderer hopes to give Edmontonians a better idea of the strength of the arts in our community, and build relationships with local arts institutions.

This past year I went from knowing nothing about opera, to falling in love with it. I’ve seen amazing performances, tremendous vocalists, superb acting, spectacular costumes, perfect musical execution and breathtaking scenery, all of which have earned the Edmonton Opera the reputation of being a world class organization. At the head of this organization is Sandra Gajic. Casual fans of the opera will know her as the woman who walks onto the stage before each performance, the woman in the performance pamphlets with “CEO” typed below her photograph. Those who are better acquainted with Sandra know what an integral piece she is in this organization and, after sitting down with her in her downtown office, I understood what an integral part of our arts community as a whole she is.

Recently I sat down with Sandra and we talked, about her roots, what took her to the opera, about her education, about her experience in the business world, and her thoughts on the arts in Edmonton. Mere minutes into the conversation it became very clear that not only is Edmonton’s art community alive, but it is vibrant, on par with some of the most recognized artistic societies in the world. The Edmonton Opera, and Sandra’s work over the course of the last two years building on the Opera’s reputation, are a big part of this success.

Sandra Gajic grew up in the former Yugoslavia, in a society and with a family that fostered creative and artistic growth. Gajic graduated from university with degrees in Economics and Music (specializing in piano), and then went on to get her MBA in Economics. Her diverse academic career is just as impressive as her professional career. Remarkably, Sandra has kept one foot in the business world, and one foot in the arts world for her entire life, without compromising either. Having worked as the General Manager of the EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts in Calgary, and as the Operations Manager at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto before that, her role as the CEO of the Edmonton Opera seems like a natural fit for this incredibly driven business woman and arts aficionado. I find her dedication to the arts, and to her professional life incredibly inspiring. She is a clear role model for any young aspiring professionals, women entering the business world, and any students passionate about the arts.

B: Do you remember any particular moment or thing that inspired your love for the arts and opera?

Sandra: My earliest memories [of the opera] are actually, my paternal grandmother had this grand piano, how the hell it survived many wars… She used to play operatic music and accompany. She would play the entire score just like how Michael Spassov [the artistic administrator and chorus master for the Edmonton Opera] sings all the voices. She would do that, sing all the voices and accompany herself. So I used to sit under that piano for hours. Apparently I was two, three years-old, and those were my earliest memories. So I think opera is who I am because I’ve always had that passion even when I was in music. I was never interested in being a collaborative pianist, accompanying and so on. It was really more on the side of, earlier on, [being] a consumer, learning and traveling, I traveled the world for opera on my own. So for me [this job is] an ideal combination.

B: You have been with the opera for two years now. How have you seen it grow since you’ve been here? How have you seen it change (if it has)?

Sandra: What we’ve seen is recent growth. We were losing some of our subscribers and, I think, everybody was getting a little bit tired of us and we were really struggling in terms of capacity. So with the support of our board we invested into our own capacity and that capacity was not just our own people, because without people we can’t do anything, we are nothing. When I started we only had five staff. It’s not like we’re huge now but we have thirteen full-time plus five part-time contract positions, so we needed people.

We also needed other resources, like the network. We decided to invest money into our own ticketing system, online donations,[...] the integrated software that deals with patron management, we got away from Ticketmaster. Many many things happened in parallel that helped us with incredible growth. Our budget grew by about 70% in year one and was closed by corporate sponsorships and [...] significant increases in individual donations. That also started translating into increased interest in our performances so we started seeing increases in subscriptions, ticket sales. The old expression says the rising tide lifts the boat so in our case that’s really correct. We have seen incredible growth over the last two years. I came here with a mandate of changing this company in a way that would really prepare it for the future, for the next fifty years.

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