Stern Grove Festival – free love for 78 years

The following excerpt is taken from the full interview in our print version of the magazine (Vol. 11, No. 13)

Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco has been presenting entirely free events for festivalgoers for 78 years. Executive director Steven Haines explains how he makes it happen. Interview by Maria Roberts

There is a challenge when we talk about accessibility in the arts, and then want to charge USD100 (€91) to see a performance for one night out. At Stern Grove Festival we look at accessibility in two different ways: firstly it’s about the no-cost approach, but secondly it’s about the freedom of the space. Here, a world-class festival has been put in the middle of the park and there is nothing more inviting than a natural setting that makes you feel welcomed.

Instead of walls we have redwood trees and eucalyptus trees; instead of red velvet seats we have beautiful stone terraces and grass. Sometimes it can be scary walking into a theatre or a concert hall, and so we’ve created this proscenium between the performer and audience. The public feels so in tune with the space, and I think that’s why we have such great fans.

Operationally, Stern Grove is one of the most challenging venues I’ve ever seen: the area itself, at 64 acres, is massive. It also requires balance because when planning the programme we want to attract a strong audience, but not too large. In the past we’ve tried to create some sort of metrics with social media, but that hasn’t been consistent, and because we are not ticketed we don’t know how many people will turn up on any given day; it could be 5,000 or 14,000.

To have been able to offer a free festival for 78 years as a non-profit arts organisation is fantastic, especially when you consider the significant financial challenges faced by organisations doing paid performances. Our model is actually quite rare globally. We’re able to continue to present a free festival because of our long legacy.

How? First we have to step back to the original mission of our founder, Mrs Stern, and what her principles were for this organisation. Stern Grove Festival was launched during the Great Depression, and one of its leading manifesto points was to present the greatest performers and musicians in the world to residents in the area. It also made a priority of giving work to local musicians – this was pivotal, because there were many people who were out of work. Stern Grove Festival provided opportunities not just for musicians, but for those people employed to build and run the facilities.

What is the secret to our success? While it is true that confidence plays a part, we are also incredibly proud of what we offer to the community in the Bay Area. To some extent, I look at Stern Grove Festival as being the first true centre for the performing arts in San Francisco. Ours is the only stage on which all the main arts organisations of San Francisco – including the opera, the ballet company and the symphony orchestra – have performed.

We see Stern Grove Festival as a long-running gift to the community of San Francisco, and to make it happen we need the community’s support. To gain this we approach various partners, whether they be individual donors or corporations, and our history helps to build trust; it makes it much easier to find financial support for what we’re doing than other organisations might consider.

Around 99 per cent of our nearly USD3m (€2.74m) income is raised through contributions – so, basically, it’s all philanthropy, individual donations, sponsorship by corporations, government and local grant money, and NEA funding. It’s tough to give an immediate impression of the actual size of the organisation and the number of people that attend, because that USD3m effectively represents only one-half of the full equation of what we’re doing: on paper you won’t see the ‘other half’ of our income, which would typically be generated via ticket sales, so when I talk to funders about the true scope of the organisation, it can be a challenge to reflect its real size – we appear smaller in terms of financial turnover than the reality of what we do.

Read the full interview in issue Vol 11: Issue 13 of IAM here.