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Three Who Identified a Need in the Arts — and Filled It

June 25, 2010

If founding an arts organization is a challenge, sticking with it is an extreme sport. It takes bravery, business acumen and blind faith to ensure success over the long haul, and the Bay Area is home to several cultural leaders who started their respective organizations decades ago and have attained local and national significance.

We recently gathered three of these directors for lunch and conversation at the rooftop sculpture garden at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The group included Ruth Felt, founder and president of San Francisco Performances, an independent presenter of classical and jazz recitals and contemporary dance that has been around for 31 years; Sydney Goldstein, founding executive director of City Arts & Lectures, a producer of a speaking series with acclaimed cultural and political figures, which has existed for 30 years; and Stephanie Weisman, artistic/executive director and founder of The Marsh, a solo-performance incubator that is celebrating its 20th anniversary. (This conversation has been condensed and edited.)

SYDNEY GOLDSTEIN: Our organizations are very different.

RUTH FELT: But in starting them, we all identified a need in the community to fill.

GOLDSTEIN: I identified a need of my own. I was sitting in the Herbst Theatre one evening in 1979 when it struck me that it would be great to see Susan Sontag, whom I had presented a dozen times or so at the College of Marin, where I was running the public-events program at the time, on that stage. I was tired of driving often twice a day from the city to Marin, so I thought I would explore programming in San Francisco.

STEPHANIE WEISMAN: For me it was about a personal and community need. When I was 12, I did a poetry reading at a synagogue, and it was a disaster because no one told me to speak into the microphone. So when I came to San Francisco from Buffalo in 1986, I wanted a place for writers and performers like myself to easily develop their work. I started a regular Monday night performance series at the Hotel Utah that eventually morphed into The Marsh.

FELT: Sydney and I actually met when I was programming arts events for the University of California at Los Angeles early in 1971. I moved to the Bay Area that August when I got a job at the San Francisco Opera.

GOLDSTEIN: You worked so hard at the opera, like seven days a week.

FELT: I loved the opera. If I hadn’t had the experience of working there and done all that networking, I could never have successfully started San Francisco Performances. But I wanted to do something other than working nonstop. So when I noticed that there were no independent arts presenters in town, I decided to fill the gap.

WEISMAN: While I was getting my master’s degree, I worked at an arts journal with the poet Robert Creeley. He taught me important skills such as how to be an editor, without which I couldn’t have started The Marsh.

GOLDSTEIN: Having the guts to get on with it was critical. Susan Sontag was my first board member, and she gave me courage. She was fearless and believed in what I was doing more than I did.

FELT: There had been a few independent arts presenters in town, but they had gone bust, so people were skeptical about my plan. The pianist André Watts, who gave our inaugural concert on Nov. 23, 1980, at Davies Symphony Hall, came to my aid. He said that he wanted to help me get started because he felt that it was important for San Francisco to have an independent presenter.

WEISMAN: At The Marsh’s recent 20th anniversary celebration, I told a story about how I’d promised to make brownies for a show at the Hotel Utah. I lived in North Beach at the time and had never used my oven before. It didn’t smell good when I opened it so I went up the road to the Columbus Cafe with my uncooked brownie mix, and they offered to bake my brownies. We’ve relied on the kindness of strangers and friends ever since.

CHLOE VELTMAN: Do you think you could start these types of organizations in today’s world?

WEISMAN: Living here has become increasingly unaffordable so I think it would be harder to start an organization like The Marsh now. But if you have persistence, you can do it.

GOLDSTEIN: City Arts & Lectures could not be started now even by a person with energy. There’s much more competition today.

FELT: I agree. The market is saturated. We’ve managed to keep going for this long because we’ve been able to sustain the quality of our presentations.

GOLDSTEIN: There have been so many high points.

FELT: I’m reminded of that every time I go backstage at the Herbst Theatre and see all the photos of the great artists we’ve presented.

GOLDSTEIN: Same for me. Like when Terry Gross interviewed Gladys Knight and she and her orchestra performed “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Or when Vendela Vida interviewed Ian McEwan. There have been many memorable moments. But then there are the other kind.

VELTMAN: The other kind?

GOLDSTEIN: Like when we had Lily Tomlin in front of 3,000 people at Davies Symphony Hall and the interviewer froze onstage.

WEISMAN: Charlie Varon’s 1994 production, “Rush Limbaugh in Night School” was a pivotal moment for me. It was the first time we let a show extend. The show got reviewed, and then producers started coming. We’ve continued this model and have been expanding to accommodate more shows.

FELT: How many events do you present a year?

WEISMAN: Around 600.

GOLDSTEIN: Wow. We present around 50, and we generally don’t produce anything in the summer.

FELT: We present 50 to 60 main stage events between the fall and late May.

VELTMAN: Could your organizations continue without you?

WEISMAN: With our Festival of New Voices, an annual event showcasing the work of up-and-coming solo performers, we’re already training the next generation of playwrights and directors.

FELT: We’re all looking to the younger generation, but we need to maintain the same high quality.

VELTMAN: What would you be doing if you weren’t running your organizations?

FELT: I’d probably still be working in the arts, but not running my own show. You?

GOLDSTEIN: I don’t want to retire, but I’ll eventually start looking for a younger person to take over. Then I’ll write a bad novel.



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