Magazine article Opera Canada

Northern Exposure: As It Readies to Celebrate Its 50th Anniversary Season, Edmonton Opera Unexpectedly Finds Itself Looking for New Strategic Direction Yet Again

Magazine article Opera Canada

Northern Exposure: As It Readies to Celebrate Its 50th Anniversary Season, Edmonton Opera Unexpectedly Finds Itself Looking for New Strategic Direction Yet Again

Article excerpt

AT Edmonton Opera's 2010/11 annual general meeting, then-Board Chair Dianne Kipnes described the financial situation at the company as "grim." Two years later, after hiring a new CEO to make numerous changes to the organization structurally and artistically, the company is still struggling with money problems and the CEO has abruptly quit. It may be or two about trying to do too much too fast over the past two years, by a financial shortfall and it needs to regroup.

Sandra Gajic, who worked at the Canadian Opera Company for 17 years and then more recently had managed Calgary's Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts, was hired in April 201 I with a mandate to generate cash, among other things. The posting for the position stated in underscored language that "a strong track record in fundraising (was) essential." The posting also stipulated that the new leader would ensure "artistic excellence, financial stability and community engagement." Making headway with two out of three of those goals doesn't seem to have been enough to keep Gajic in Edmonton.

She left her job on May 3, the day after the 2012/13 season ended with a fourth-performance of Eugene Onegin. The official reason for her sudden departure was that she "decided to move on from the Edmonton Opera." In an Edmonton Journal interview, she said, "I resigned to pursue other opportunities." She declined an interview for this article, and Irv Kipnes, current chairman of the board, insisted she wasn't pushed to leave/The company has raised its standards, and it now needs to go to the next stage. I didn't feel I was the right person to continue leading the organization in its future strategic direction," Gajic told the Journal.

Kipnes, a go-to Edmonton arts philanthropist currently spearheading development of an $850-million downtown performing-arts complex and satellite University of Alberta campus that would include a 1,600-seat opera hall, won't divulge any details of behind-the-scenes discussions that may have played a part in Gajic's deeision. The company's current financial statement won't come out until September, but Kipnes did say that EO was bleeding red ink, despite considerable headway made in sponsorships and donations during Gajic's tenure. He said the company would have to "tighten its belt" to stabilize itself financially.

"Short-term, our solution was to go more after corporate sponsorship," Gajic said in an interview the week she resigned. "We had very little history of corporate fundraising. It wasn't one of the focus areas for the organization before my arrival. It became a strong focus." Sponsorships increased to $920,000 in her first year, and they were expected to top one million dollars this last season.

Subscriptions also rose to 2,900 from 1,800 two years ago, but walk-up business has declined. However, with this growth, the budget also increased from $3.3 million in Gajic's first season to $5.5 million. It seems the $184,000 deficit the company had on its books going into the 2012/13 season has likely grown. The deficit was $86,000 when Gajic started, although EO had struggled with a much higher deficit earlier in the decade and only really could look to balance its books after cutting its program to three productions from four at the end of the 2003/04 season. Before she left, Gajic predicted the budget would be less than $5 million next season. (The company has a $3-million endowment fund, but this cannot be used for operational expenses.)

"We didn't make budget, and we're going to have some catchup to do, which is in hand," Kipnes conceded about the season just ended. "But were just going to have to be more involved at the board level to get the board more involved financially." The day after Gajic resigned, he said the company was scrambling to collect more money through sponsorship commitments its fiscal year-end in June.

The search for a new leader for EG begins in earnest in the Fall, but until then business will be overseen by Production Director Tim Yakimec. …

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