New Leader Aims to Elevate Status of L.A.'s Music Center

President Shelton Stanfill wants his organization's name to `roll off the tongue'

FROM his second-floor corner office at 601 West Temple Street here, Shelton Stanfill looks out at America's third-largest performing arts center, the largest west of the Mississippi.

``It's clear that the Music Center casts a very long shadow in California, but it does not roll off the tongue as a national name,'' Mr. Stanfill says. ``I hope to change that.''

The new president of The Music Center of the County of Los Angeles - the fifth since its founding in 1964 - arrived in town two weeks before the Jan. 17 earthquake after edging out 150 other candidates in a national search.

Most recently the fiscal saviour of Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., the country's only national park dedicated to the arts, Stanfill brings a hefty reputation for rescuing arts organizations from the brink of insolvency.

Entering a community besieged by both social and natural calamities, deeply questioning its own political and cultural identity, Stanfill's talent for articulating the values of the arts is being welcomed with open arms.

``He will be a calm leader in troubled times,'' says Fred Roberts, a newly-elected board member of the Music Center (TMC).

His mission, stamped impossible by the naysayers, difficult by the well-advised, and merely doable even by the optimistic, is easily enough stated:

* Returning one of the West Coast's most important cultural institutions to solid financial footing after a minor financial scandal involving its former president;

* Reverse the downward trend of fundraising amid city-, county- and statewide budget cuts;

* Build a national and international profile for this loose confederation of resident companies that are well-known individually (the Los Angeles Philharmonic; the Center Theatre Group, including the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theater; the Los Angeles Master Chorale; and the Los Angeles Music Center Opera) but remain, collectively, nondescript.

``There is no doubt [TMC] should be mentioned in the same breath with [New York's] Lincoln Center and [Washington's] Kennedy Center,'' Stanfill says.

By nearly every account, Mr. Stanfill is the rarest of individuals, one who combines a voracious appetite for arts, from the popular to the fine, with the ability to spark equal appetites in others.

``He has the vision that builds an audience by connecting it to the community's sense of itself and what it needs,'' says Patricia Mitchell, deputy general director of the Music Center Opera.

``He can converse brilliantly from dance to theater to music and understands, as few do, why the sum of this place can be greater than its parts,'' adds Gordon Davidson, director of the Center Theatre Group.

At Virginia's Wolf Trap, Mr. Stanfill is credited with developing innovative programs to appeal to both urban and rural populations in northern Virginia and Washington. He also developed a pioneering arts-education program for preschool children that is expected to dovetail nicely with TMC's education division.

To similarly communicate his vision to L.A.'s rich mix of ethnic groups is considered Stanfill's greatest challenge. Most of his time, says Larry Londre, vice president for marketing at TMC, will be spent meeting with resident company directors, the education division, and community-access staff to provide direction and leadership. He will also be responsible for soliciting individuals, corporations, and foundations for donations.

Inheriting Wolf Trap on the brink of defaulting on an $18 million federal loan, Stanfill balanced five of six budgets and expanded the park's annual operating budget from $10 million to $16 million. Before that, he served as executive director for the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, director of cultural programs at Colorado State University, and director of the National Arts Festival for the 12th-annual Olympic winter games.

Here, the four resident companies run off a $66 million combined budget. The money is raised individually and supplemented by a unified fund generated by Stanfill and a staff of about 50.

That supplemental income has been dwindling in recent years. The philharmonic earns 80 percent of its $36 million budget, for instance, but its supplemental income from the Music Center has dropped from $5.2 million in 1991 to $3.1 million for the current year, according to publicist Norma Flynn.

To begin reversing that trend, Stanfill has already been handed this season's goal of raising $12.7 million by June, a difficult challenge in the wake of riots, fires, mudslides, and earthquakes.

Expenses related to the earthquake, for instance, are likely to lessen the amount residents might give to TMC, he explains. But the greater problem, he says, stems from this region's economic restructuring, which goes beyond even the current recession - the state's worst since the Great Depression.

``All of this is going to make fundraising here a real challenge for the next five to six years,'' Stanfill says.

Two major developments will mitigate that challenge. A current renovation of TMC's Ahmanson Theater is expected to make that much-criticized space more user-friendly. And the 1997 completion of a $110 million Disney Hall will create a new, expanded home for the philharmonic and free up space for other resident companies. It will also expand TMC's capacity as a presenter.

``Disney Hall will become Los Angeles's profile to the world, like the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House,'' Stanfill says. ``It will change the entire tone and temper of this complex and the surrounding downtown.''

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