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Gallo Arts CEO targets venue's deficit with 'fresh ideas'

After more than two months as the chief executive officer of the Gallo Center for the Arts, Lynn Dickerson has one main objective: making money.

Her top priority is to reduce the center's perennial operating deficit, and she hopes to eliminate it by her third year on the job. She said the key is to bring more revenue, because she can't close the gap only by reducing expenses.

This month, two major donors -- E.&J. Gallo Winery and John and June Rogers -- pledged a $1.5 million challenge grant to spur additional community contributions. They will give half of the money this season with the remainder to come once matching funds come in from other donors, businesses and foundations.

The $40 million center opened in September 2007 under the leadership of Dave Pier. Pier, who declined to renew his contract this season, saw through the center's construction and built up its audience.

But the center has bled red ink, losing $2.8 million in its first season and $2.2 million in its second. It's projected to lose $1.6 million this season, Dickerson said.

Those deficits, while expected, matter because they're causing the center to delay paying down its remaining construction debt, which totals $13.6 million.

Dickerson is undaunted by the challenge and said she enjoys everything about the job, from donor relations to managing the business and getting to know each of the staff members.

"I've never had a job I loved as much as this," said Dickerson, who previously served as The Modesto Bee's publisher and a McClatchy Co. vice president. "I can make things happen here. That feels really exciting and good."

She enacted a suggestion from staff to make money by auctioning artist memorabilia, and doing that has brought in $5,000 to the center. John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Jo Dee Messina and Sara Evans signed guitars. John Cleese signed The Bee's Scene section, and Michael Flatley, creator of "Lord of the Dance," signed a poster. Dickerson said she's not surprised that fans were willing to shell out big bucks for the items, even in the poor economy.

"There's still a lot of rich people around," she said.

Matching artists to region's tastes

Dickerson is working to bring in artists that will better match the region's tastes for the 2010-11 season. Some possibilities? Tom Jones, Michael Bolton, Julio Iglesias and Foreigner.

"This market responds well to names they recognize," Dickerson said.

The most well-attended events at the Gallo Center have been Broadway, comedy, country and family shows. The genres that are the least well-attended are jazz, dance and world music. One need that hasn't been met yet is Latin pop, Dickerson said. She booked Los Lobos for March and hopes to add more bands.

The Gallo Center will offer a speaker series for the first time in 2010-11. There will be two speakers in the fall and two in the spring.

"They could be authors, they could be social justice people," Dickerson said. "There are good opportunities out there."

Dickerson said she would like to open the Gallo Center's season a month later than its usual September start because shows during that month don't tend to sell well. She believes it's because of conflicts with back-to-school expenses and high school football.

Dickerson also plans to reduce the number of events the Gallo Center presents from 108 performances to about 80 (the number doesn't include rentals or events staged by the center's resident companies).

Right now, she believes the Gallo Center is doing too much.

"You dilute your audience," she said. "People can't afford to come to everything."

For example, October was jam-packed with too much programming, Dickerson said. Dana Carvey, Loggins & Messina, and Kenny Rogers all performed in less than a week.

Events to fit every budget

She said she will continue to let people know that the Gallo Center has a range of pricing options for tickets. She noted it bugs her when people say the venue is only for the rich. Every show is priced differently. For example, while tickets to a Broadway show may be $40 to $80, a play for children can be $8 to $15.

Dickerson led The Bee in some of its most prosperous years, helping the paper capitalize on the San Joaquin Valley's growing economy before the real estate bubble burst. Her work propelled her to become a McClatchy Co. vice president in Sacramento when the corporation grew by acquiring the much-larger Knight Ridder newspaper chain in 2006.

However, Dickerson said, she was eager to return to Modesto despite the significant pay cut the arts job brought because she missed her friends in town. She said she gained an added appreciation for the city after her youngest son, Ryan, 18, died in a swimming-related accident in the summer of 2007, and her Modesto friends rallied around and gave her support.

"We're lucky to have her," said Ron Emerzian, chairman of the Gallo Center board. "She has fresh ideas, high energy and a positive can-do attitude. It's everything that we want. She has very strong business skills and she knows the community so well. She hit the ground running her first day."

He said he is confident that Dickerson will be able to meet her goal of eliminating the operating deficit in three years. But he added that she will need ongoing community support from donors to do it.

"She's not going to get it done with a magic wand," Emerzian said.

Dickerson feels confident the Gallo Center will be able to get the money it needs to continue long-term.

"This community really loves this place," she said. "If we can be good stewards of what the public entrusts us with, we can get enough revenue."

For more about Modesto area arts, visit www.twitter.com/lisamillegan or thehive.modbee.com/artsbeat.

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