Tragedy and triumph

In Act One, Sandra Gajic lost a country, but Act Two promises a dynamic flourish as leader of Overture Center for the Arts.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Life hasn’t been always been easy for Sandra Gajic (GUY-itch), the new president/CEO at the Overture Center of the Arts.

She’s survived heartbreak and heartache, first from the breakup of her homeland, the former Yugoslavia — and then the breakup of a marriage. Eventually she’d emigrate to Canada with two young children in tow. She wouldn’t pursue a full-blown arts career until years later.

Now settled in Madison, Gajic is especially proud to be Overture Center’s first female leader in a performing arts industry that has very few.

Perhaps it’s in her Gajic family genes. “I come from generations of very strong, formidable women who were not afraid to say no, so I have tenacity and perseverance and don’t give up easily,” she states.

Long before her predecessor, Ted Dedee, announced his retirement plans, Gajic remembers visiting the city as an attendee at an administrator’s conference. “Madison just felt right,” she states.

Below are snippets of a recent conversation with this fascinating and worldly woman.

IB: What’s your professional background and philosophy?
My degree is in economics, but my strength is in business, particularly arts administration. I’ve always loved music and the arts; I’m a voracious reader; and love architecture, as well.

I believe it is [Overture’s] job to bring the world to Madison. Not all events will make money — it’s a huge expense to bring programs here — but we are man- dated to do so.

IB: How do you know if an event will turn a profit?
There is a crystal ball element involved, I admit, but I have a great team of professionals here. We just completed the 2019-2020 budget. Every performance we bring in involves countless spreadsheets and variables. We’re constantly doing a balancing act and running projections, but I won’t take any unreasonable or unnecessary risks, either.

IB: Tell me about your past.
I’m from the former Yugoslavia and left just before the civil war started. It was split into several different countries, but I still grieve for my former homeland. We were a proud country. We were not aligned and we had freedoms. Some people lose umbrellas at a show. We lost a country.

It’s very difficult. I still write poetry about it.

IB: How did you get to Canada?
Prior to leaving my homeland, we lived in Libya for four years to earn the money required to move to Canada. My former husband was an engineer and I worked for a Dutch consulting firm. I actually learned English from the Dutch! We had two beautiful children but lost the marriage. I moved to Canada, raised my kids and found a job with the Canadian Opera Co. in Toronto. As I worked my way west through Calgary, Edmonton, and to Vancouver, I left a trail of really wonderful projects that continue modernizing arts venues.

IB: You’ve been through a lot. What else motivated you?
Years ago I saw an Edward Albee play, “Three Tall Women,” about a woman who reflects back on her life at three different stages of her life. It had a profound affect on me. I never want to feel ashamed of who I become or have any regrets.



IB: What are your thoughts on your new city?
Madison is unique in that it is blessed with community-minded philanthropists. In fact, it was built on philanthropy! Let’s be honest, there would be no Overture Center if it weren’t for two individuals [Jerry Frautschi, Pleasant Rowland]!

Our audiences are following a worldwide trend toward more experiential, holistic experiences. They want good food, desserts, good coffee and wine — though I prefer Scotch — along with great performances. We’re working toward that.

IB: What should the business community know about Overture?
We get 600,000 people through our doors every year; 260,000 of them receive free access to our venues. Overture Center is a vital business, in part because we get support from the city’s room taxes, but we also give back.

We are an economic catalyst! Ten percent of our paid attendees book hotel rooms and even more support area restaurants. We also provide highly subsidized rent for each of our 10 wonderful resident companies [e.g. the Madison Symphony, the Chamber Orchestra, etc.).

IB: What plans do you have for Overture?
We must be a great community partner and offer all genres of the arts to all people. We also need to create a capital reserve for future upkeep, but my mantra is finding a good balance between financial stability and civic purpose.

My ultimate dream is to expand our civic footprint outside our walls, and we need corporate and individual support to do that.

In Search of A New Life by Sandra Gajic

It’s cold here, we are not prepared
My children scared…
I can’t show them how terrified I am.

They have to see me strong
They are not allowed to see my tears
I will weep this sleepless night for the life we had to leave behind.

I love my children more than I fear the new beginning
I must give them this chance
I owe it to them, I owe it to myself.

Excerpt, written the night Sandra Gajic and her children arrived in Toronto, Canada.

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