Breaking New Ground

By Rachel Werner | Photographed by Hillary Schave

The changing of the guard in any setting can be noteworthy—especially in the case of new Overture Center for the Arts President and CEO Sandra Gajic.

Gajic is the first woman and immigrant to take the helm of Wisconsin’s most influential and largest arts nonprofit, where she’ll oversee the center’s 10 resident companies and its offerings of almost 600,000 educational experiences and live performances each year.

The center’s board conducted an international search to fill the position vacated by Ted DeDee, who retired earlier this year.

“We had asked the search firm we hired to think outside the ‘normal box’ and consider people of color and women as well as men who have typically held these roles across the country,” reveals Overture Board of Directors Chair Betty Harris Custer. “Sandra was quickly seen as a person of great capabilities and experience. But it was her worldly background, personal life story and her work with the indigenous people in Vancouver that reflected a desire to have the arts be more expansive and inclusive for all, regardless of economic standing, which fit well with our current diversity and inclusion work.”

And Gajic’s resume is impressive. A Canadian national, she’s held senior management positions with such organizations as the Edmonton Opera and Vancouver Civic Theaters. Born in Split, Croatia, and educated at the University of Belgrade, Gajic relocated her young family to Liberia when the former Yugoslavia erupted in civil war. After several years in Africa, they migrated to England and eventually Canada, where she would help the first ‘purpose-built’ opera house be financed and built during her time as operations manager for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.

“I love change, welcome change and initiate change,” Gajic says about the evolution of her career. “My appreciation definitely deepened as I saw and experienced more and more — but the basic notion of how artistic expression changes, influences and connects us as humans anywhere in the world has remained the same.”

Gajic’s understanding of how to expand both Overture’s reach and its financial footing may be derived from not coming from a place of privilege herself. “Life was not always easy. I started off having to work two to three jobs, and taught piano for years as a secondary source of income.” One lesson she learned, she says, is that “it’s not easy being a strong woman.” She proudly labels herself a “fearless leader and trailblazer” committed to making the city’s arts scene more relevant and accessible to a broader audience base.

“Yes, I have a vision, but ‘the village’ needs to come together to build it,” Gajic says. “I believe that this is a fair expectation as I do start from what is a common thread in all societies—that access to sharing and co-creating artistic experiences is a fundamental human need and right. It’s our responsibility to both be the stage for local talent as well as bring the best in the world to Madison.”

Her desire to be connected to—and fuel—a vibrant art community runs deep. She was trained as a classical musician and has fed a love for opera, poetry and literature throughout her travels. She considers Belgian-born, American writer Marguerite Yourcenar as a personal muse. She hopes to uncover hidden gems of this magnitude in terms of artistic talent and collaboration here.

“One of her (Yourcenar) books, “Memoirs of Hadrian,” has been one of my most beloved for many, many years,” she says. “A quote I treasure is: ‘Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.’” Thus, like her muse, Gajic’s many talents will be put to use, sowing the seeds of authenticity and creativity in the years ahead.