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


"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.

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