Wesley Brustad, the new president and CEO of New Brunswick’s State Theater, can get by on five to six hours of sleep a night. Luckily. Endowed with exceptional curiosity and enterprise, he fully exploits all the waking hours he can find. Since his transplantation from California to New Jersey in November, Brustad has faithfully attended performances at the State, eyeing audiences and professionally assessing what happens on stage, in order to scope out a hefty handful of projects for the theater, which hosts more than 200 performances a year and offers an extensive array of educational programs for students and teachers.
Brustad’s new charge boasts a 33-member staff — and an 1,850 seat theater, which was constructed in 1921 as a vaudeville theater. Later it became a movie theater, and was extensively renovated in summer, 2004, to bring it back to the glories of its original 1921 appearance.
Brustad, whose appointment came after a six-month search, talked about his vision for the State Theater at an interview in his small Livingston Avenue office. The room is a practical space, serviceable, and without frills. A sofa and comfortable chairs opposite the desk accommodate visitors. The decoration is minimal. There are a few family pictures.
Practicality pervades both Brustad’s office and his outlook. Yet, his stewardship of the State Theater promises to be fearlessly competitive, meticulously planned, and sensitively executed. He observes intently. With more than 20 years’ experience managing arts organizations, he is incessantly attentive to the bottom line, and bristling with institutional smarts that make him simultaneously cautious and bold.
A high priority for Brustad is what he calls “connecting to underserved markets.” His style emerges as he explores the matter. “I’m still trying to figure out how to connect,” he says. “I arrived in New Brunswick on November 1, and I went to every performance at the State in November and December. I need to know who’s walking into the theater.”
“Four groups were missing,” Brustad says, somewhat surprised. “The Latino community; in New Brunswick it’s heavily Mexican. They are looking for a gathering place as much as anybody else. Asian-Indians were missing. In the New Brunswick area the Asian-Indian population is one of the largest outside India. African-Americans were absent. And there is the obvious one — Rutgers students. I didn’t see them here.” Although he has collected some cogent observations from his relentless attendance at events, he makes no rash leaps.
“I need help from people who know those markets,” says Brustad, who shuns creating committees or task forces to solve a problem. “I don’t want to form a board,” he says. “Once you do that, you don’t connect to the person on the street. I’ll use informal contacts. It will take a year. I want to be careful to get it right. We have to tell our story well and tell it a lot, and we have to build confidence among people and corporations.”
Creating partnerships is one of Brustad’s favorite management methods. Eager to partner with other arts organizations, he has found an open spot in the calendar. “I want to get into summer programming,” he says. “It makes sense for American Ballet Theater, and George Street, and the Rutgers people. It’s done best if everybody brings something to the table. There are ways to work together to market collectively. The more we do together, the more water we can bail.”
He is also eager to work with ordinary people, not just large contributors. “If you are interested we’re not looking at your pocketbook,” he says. “We want your help.” He praises the two co-chairs of commUNITY, whose most visible project is the commUNITY Culture series, which consists of ethnically-oriented performances. State Theater board member Madiha Boraie, a New Brunswick realtor, along with Blanquita Valenti, Middlesex County’s first Hispanic freeholder, a retired teacher who helped found the Puerto Rican Action Board, head a body of 150 people who Brustad characterizes as “just working people. “These two powerhouse women leaders took it on because they have a heart for it,” he says.
Brustad has written a set of three articles about partnering for Chamber Music, the publication of Chamber Music America. In them he peppers the advice of a wise manager with earthy aphorisms. “It is no longer us and them,” he warns. “It must only be us.” “The operative word in collaborations is ‘share,’” he notes. Advising small musical organizations to be watchful lest they be swallowed up by a corporate partner, he says, “Date first to know if you want to marry.”
“I’m not turf-protective,” Brustad says. “I like partnerships; I like collaborations. I’ve matured to that stage. In my early years I would do it alone. Now I realize that doing it alone is too much work.”
Born in Ferrgus Falls, Minnesota, to a Lutheran minister father and a mother who was a housewife, Brustad calls it “one of the coldest spots in the world.” Ministry and missionary work kept the family on the move, changing climates.
“I grew up all over the world,” Brustad says. His wife, Karla, comes from a military family, and also moved frequently. “We’re gypsies,” he says. Actress and teacher, Karla Brustad most recently has made a career as a fundraising executive. They have two daughters: Stephanie, 24, is pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Seattle Pacific University, in Seattle. Jessica is finishing a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Brustad earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Washington School of Drama. In the mid-1960s he graduated from the United States Air Force Officers Training School in San Antonio, Texas.
“I started as an actor and then went into directing,” he says, sketching his professional trajectory. “Eventually, I got tired of the confines of the rehearsal studio and theater six days a week and moved into producing or managing. I found that I liked it because it gave me more freedom. Then I started exploring various disciplines. I thought, ‘Wow! Dance is interesting. Music is interesting.’ I worked with performing arts centers, theaters, and orchestras. I even did a stint with an art museum; I wanted to know how a museum functions. My academic background was in music and theater, but I got into TV and film. I don’t think there is an art form I haven’t explored. I’m just curious about everything.”
Brustad has served as vice president of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, executive director of the South Carolina Arts Commission, and managing director of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Fundamentally, Brustad says the business aspects in the arts are similar, though each has its quirks. “I’m comfortable with all of them. There’s not much, by way of problems, that I haven’t seen before.”
Over a period of 13 years, Brustad served as president of three different orchestras — the Spokane Symphony, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and the San Diego Symphony — all of which he restored to financial health by applying custom-made remedies. “Each was totally different,” he says. Tersely, he sketches the elements of his success. “You listen a lot,” he says. “You need local lay leadership, and in all cases, the chairman of the board was critical.
“The Spokane Symphony came back during a five-year period,” Brustad says. “There was a constituency of individuals who loved the orchestra, and I went to that wide base of individuals. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was facing bankruptcy. It took a year to get it back to health. It was the opposite of Spokane. There was no broad base. But I got corporate help because they recognized the excellence of the operation.
The San Diego Symphony was floundering for years and the community was fed up. They seem to be in bankruptcy every three years. I found two or three donors to put up big amounts of money. Two families helped the orchestra get back on its feet. Once the orchestra was back into full operation, they could start eliminating their debt. It took four years. They are finally putting an endowment together.”
After seven years with the San Diego Symphony, Brustad decided to change direction. “After 13 years in the arts, I needed fresh air,” he says. In 1993 he moved the family to Eugene, Oregon, where he ran four businesses owned by Lane County: a convention center, a fairgrounds, an ice skating pavilion, and a pavilion for horse shows. He also bred horses.
Mutiny, however, was building at home. “We never saw the sun,” Brustad says. “It had a big impact on the family.” Two years later they returned to San Diego. Brustad taught college and served as an arts consultant before joining the San Diego Museum of Art, where he directed lecture and performing arts programs, as well as film and television events. “I wanted to stay in San Diego so the kids could finish high school,” he says.
He feels particularly proud of his work with the San Diego Symphony. “It was such a deep hole. They were $6 million in debt, the hall was not paid for, they had labor relations battles like nothing I had ever seen, and a community that was fed up with the orchestra and wouldn’t have minded if it went away and never came back. When you start that bad and recover, it’s remarkable.”
“When I decide to stop working 12 hours a day, I’ll retire,” Brustad says. “Retirement is only working six hours a day. I’ll probably go back to Arizona. I love my horses.” He keeps two horses at his home in Arizona.
Meanwhile, he will be thoroughly occupied in New Brunswick, cheerfully meeting the trio of challenges that drew him to New Jersey. Uniquely appealing for Brustad are the demographics of central New Jersey and the potential for expanding the role of the State Theater. Perhaps most rewarding for him is operating in an area with a high concentration of arts centers and theaters.
“The competition is fierce,” Brustad says, “and I love that. There is nothing like tough competitors to keep you on your toes and to whet the appetite of the market.” He sounds like a man about to enjoy plumbing the interstices of New Jersey’s social fabric and working out what the State Theatre can do for everybody’s mutual benefit. Naturally, he will do it with his usual curiosity and energy. “I don’t want to grow up,” he says.
State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 732-246-7469. For an event schedule visit www.StateTheatreNJ.org.