Sandra Gajic, president and CEO of Overture Center for the Arts, dies at age 66
Sandra Gajic, president and CEO of Overture Center for the Arts, died today after a seven-month battle with cancer. She was 66. Surrounded by her children, Ivana and Vedran, daughter-in-law, Janine, and extended family and friends, Gajic passed away while being treated at Agrace Hospice in Fitchburg.
The first woman to run Overture Center, Gajic (GUY-itsch) had relentless energy, passion for her work and a strong business acumen, leading Overture Center during one its most successful seasons ever. A seasoned executive in the arts with more than 28 years of experience to her credit, Gajic began her Overture tenure on August 13, 2018, taking over for Ted DeDee who retired in May 2018. During her time with the organization, she made a tremendous impact, spearheading an increase in Broadway subscribers, helping introduce and implement new board policies, expanding the work of the equity and innovation department and broadening multicultural programming. In addition, she was instrumental in initiating a comprehensive study of Overture’s operations and assets to ensure the facility and organization is forever part of Madison.
“Sandra was very energetic and passionate and had a drive about her that was really second to none,” said Betty Harris Custer, chairman of the Overture board of directors. “She will be immeasurably missed and mourned. In her all too short, fifteen-month tenure, she accomplished more than many might have in years. The Sandra Gajic legacy will live on. As said in HAMILTON, her story will be told.”
Harris Custer said the Executive Committee will meet immediately in a special session to decide on plans for an interim CEO and will have an announcement in the near future.
ABOUT SANDRA GAJIC
A lifelong opera fan, Gajic began her career in the arts in May 1991 with the Canadian Opera Company where she worked for more than 16 years, first as an evening telemarketer and later attaining the position of operations manager. She gained advanced management experience as the general manager of EPCOR CENTRE for Performing Arts from 2008 to 2011 and as the CEO of the Edmonton Opera Association from 2011 to 2013.
In July 2013, she was named executive director of the Shumka Dancers in Edmonton. In just one year, she implemented a new strategic plan and governance model, introduced a new financial and reporting system, expanded programming, increased revenues and transformed the organization into a professional performing arts company with 44 dancers and a school with more than 300 students.
In June of 2014, Gajic was named Director of the Civic Theatres where she was responsible for the development and successful transition of four theaters owned and operated by the City of Vancouver. In addition, she established stronger partnerships with resident companies, doubled revenues and contained expenses.
While working for both the Shumka Dancers and the City of Vancouver, Gajic started Sandra Gajic Consulting, focusing on helping nonprofit organizations with leadership, strategic planning, organizational audits and restructuring, fundraising, planning and management, and organizational risk assessment.
Gajic absolutely loved Overture’s diverse arts presentations, including Kids in the Rotunda, Duck Soup Cinema, Broadway shows, concerts, plays and arts exhibits. She was thrilled to bring the 24-show run of the national hit HAMILTON to Madison in November/December, attracting more than 52,000 patrons.
In a recent conversation with Harris Custer, Gajic expressed pride in the Overture staff for its success with the record-breaking HAMILTON ticket presale event in September. “She told me it was one of the highlights of her professional career,” said Harris Custer.
In late November, Gajic thanked her staff for an outstanding start to the HAMILTON show run. “I’m hearing excellent feedback about the efficiency of security and ticketing, the beautiful new bar and concession lighting and the wonderful experience all our staff is providing to our guests,” she stated in an email.
Under Gajic, Overture continued to extend its influence far beyond the Madison area, attracting people from all over Wisconsin as well as from Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. In 2018/19, the Center experienced record ticketing numbers, memberships and support and a 15 percent increase in total attendance. Entering 2019/20, Broadway subscriptions were up 31 percent.
Ticket sales and regional draw were not the only part of Gajic’s impact in 2018/19. The Jerry Awards, now one of Wisconsin’s largest high school music awards programs, grew to more than 9,500 students, teachers and community members from across 30 counties.
In an interview with BRAVA magazine in December 2018, Gajic spoke of her commitment to making the city’s arts scene more relevant and accessible to a broader audience base, stating, “It’s our responsibility to both be the stage for local talent as well as bring the best in the world to Madison.”
To that aim, she was pleased to expand the Rising Stars 2018/19 program throughout the state through partnerships with The Grand Oshkosh, The Grand Theater in Wausau and Viterbo University Fine Arts Center in La Crosse and to launch the Arts Career Exploration Spotlight (ACES) program in summer 2019.
Gajic felt inclusion was the key to success and viewed the performing arts centers of major cities as being a place where anyone should be able to come and enjoy live shows and cultural displays from all walks of life. She worked diligently with Overture’s senior vice president of equity and innovation to expand the multicultural programming and to create an Overture Center Foundation Board that better represents the community’s diverse perspectives and backgrounds. In addition, Overture hosted the Midwest Arts Integration Conference in June and the 2019 Wisconsin Leadership Summit and a one-day diversity and inclusion symposium “Zendesk Presents: Paths to Inclusion” in October.
Gajic believed arts should be accessible to all. Yet being raised in a war-torn country and later raising two children on her own, she understood it wasn’t easy to find the time or money for artistic experiences; however, she dearly loved the arts and incorporated them into her life through a wide array of interests, including painting, poetry, scuba-diving, reading and architecture.
Born on October 23, 1953, in the former Yugoslavia (Split, Croatia), Gajic held bachelor’s degrees in economics and music/piano and a master’s degree in economics from the University of Belgrade. She spoke six languages: English, Croatian, Serbian, Italian, French and Spanish.
Gajic had big dreams 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,” she explained in an interview with In Business Magazine this past March.
An active member of the community, Gajic served on the Board of Directors for Downtown Madison and the Bartell Building Corporation and was on the executive team for Any Given Child Madison. She was also a member of Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club of Madison, Madison Club and the Madison Committee on Foreign Relations.
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