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
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
"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,
"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
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
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
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.