From survival to strategizing
Marcia White leads SPAC into the 21st century
By Amy E. Tucker
President and Executive Director of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) Marcia White took time out of her busy schedule to reflect back on her career and the future of SPAC.
“I came here [to SPAC] the first day when my daughter auditioned,” she said, speaking about her oldest daughter, Marilyn, who was a dancer for the New York City Ballet, which makes its summer home at the amphitheatre. “I had a five-day-old baby in a basket and two little ones playing on the lawn. My children grew up at SPAC having picnics on the lawn and attending rehearsals and performances.”
Alhough she took tap dance lessons as a child, the death of her mother when White was 10 left her with no one to expose her to the arts. She was also left to fend for herself and her younger sister – including taking care of her father and running the household.
Her 90-year-old father was a WWII bomber pilot who once landed his aircraft in flames, saving his crew. “But, I always joked that he couldn’t save his own life!” White said.
The Columbia County native spoke of those days reflectively, noting that the hardships not only taught her survival skills, but what’s really important in life. She learned that sacrifices, great and small, can yield big dividends. Like watching her daughter perform with the NYC Ballet.
“You learn that life isn’t about you; it’s about connecting with people. If you have passion for what you do, you’ll find the skills to be successful. But, passion alone won’t suffice. You need to learn about people and understand that they’re a critical component.”
White, who assumed her position in March 2005, feels that’s what happened to SPAC. People got complacent. They took the cultural icon for granted, letting it slip through their fingers, and didn’t recognize its value until it was almost gone. They knew they wanted to retain the world-class programming, but it took White’s passion and partnering abilities to move the vision forward.
White recognized that people needed to heal, to learn to trust in the leadership of SPAC and know that people cared about what they thought. She took the stage on opening night (in 2005) of the ballet and welcomed people to SPAC.
“You make choices in your life everyday, with what to do with your time and your funds. You’re thanked internally through partaking in the cultural experience. But, we have to thank you for getting here, opening the door and taking that first step toward that opportunity.”
Thus, White began making her mark—reaching out to patrons, donors and families and encouraging them to experience what SPAC has to offer and introducing a new generation of enthusiasts to the arts.
She re-branded the organization with a new logo and launched a new website last month. She also started the Vivian Anderson Program to bring underprivileged and inner city children to SPAC to see a performance for possibly the first time in their lives.
“Vivian was an educator who was passionate about the arts and children. Whenever you share the core philosophy that we have for education, you can never do enough. Changing the heart of a child makes them kinder, gentler citizens and goes a long way toward changing the philosophy of everyone.”
White is responsible for promoting events including the NYC Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra, which make their summer home at SPAC, in addition to the Jazz Festival, Wine and Food Festivals and numerous promotional events. The Lake George Opera leases space, and the Hall of Springs and Live Nation, which produces and hosts rock and pop concerts, have separate contracts.
“We had a Saratoga Night at Lincoln Center in May and took two busloads of Saratogians to a double feature performance,” she said. “The SPAC flyer was inside the Lincoln Center program encouraging people to visit the NYC Ballet in their summer home. And our members got to see that they get the same performance at SPAC that they see in Lincoln Center—and it’s quite a bargain here!”
Ambiance and atmosphere
One of the first things people notice about SPAC is the sheer beauty of the facility and surroundings. Nestled in the heart of the Saratoga State Park, SPAC has been a cultural icon for 43 years, offering acoustically superb performances in an outdoor amphitheater.
Remembering her own time there with her daughter, White has been using the surroundings to her advantage. SPAC offers families the opportunity to ‘unplug’ and deprogram and enjoy a picnic on the lawn
“They can enjoy dinner together under the moon and stars and talk about what’s going on in their life and be enriched by a classical performance in the great outdoors.”
Improving family attendance to generate a new subscriber base is crucial to SPAC’s continued success. White recognizes that SPAC is one of the few venues that can offer the arts in a true family-style environment. To capitalize on that, they are running 20 different promotions, including Planet Night and American Girls Night, among others.
“We realize we’re encouraging people to take a vacation during a period of economic strain,” White explained. “But the weakened economy gives us an even greater opportunity to enrich the lives of people. We want them to stay in the area and come to SPAC to enjoy their summer.”
In addition to enjoying a world-renowned performance, guests can have a gourmet dinner in the Patron’s Club, enjoy a casual picnic on the lawn, attend a pre-performance talk to learn about the history of an art form, hear the master of the NYC Ballet or the author of a new book speak, or enjoy a pre-performance concert in the gazebo.
There are video screens (first used in the 1999 season) that have made the experience more “up close and personal.”
A $2.5 million renovation, the first major exterior improvements to the amphitheatre since it was constructed, is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2008. White has also focused on developing local and global partnerships to expand their core audience and attract new talent to the venue.
This year, they’ve arranged an appearance by Marin Alsop, the superstar conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and daughter of two NYC Ballet musicians.
White realizes that SPAC still has a long way to go. Less than 50 percent of ticket sales cover the costs of programming, with corporate nights and other fundraising events helping to offset the balance. She’s confident that they’ll get there because every decision that has ever been made since the 2005 transition has been made with SPAC’s future in mind.
“We just want to continue moving forward in this very difficult entertainment venue of classical arts,” said White. “We want to introduce the arts to the next generation and encourage them to be part of our growth and our future.”
She is reaching out to youth and techno-savvy patrons through a multimedia-based marketing plan aimed to educate, attract and advertise. In addition to adding podcasts and audiocasts to the web, a new video series will be premiering this summer on LCD screens in several downtown Saratoga locations displaying programming events and featured artists for the 2008 season. She feels that improving the product at SPAC is essential to its growth. And that’s good for the region.
“SPAC is an economic engine for this upstate region and the amount of exposure that a corporation receives from a SPAC sponsorship is something that surpasses most other opportunities,” stated White. “We’re community based, but internationally recognized. We have such value and such venue opportunities that it’s a wonderful place to be connected.”
For White, turning obstacles into opportunities is all-in-a-day’s work, just another of life’s challenges, that, when viewed with a positive outcome, can affect change.
“At the end of the day, you make a decision based on what would be good for SPAC,” said White. “What we really do here is enrich people’s lives, whether it’s through music or dance, family time together or the special opportunity to build a memory. Once you’ve had that opportunity, you can’t help but want to come back.”