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Off the Farm and Into the Woods? : Performing Arts: When Shelton Stanfill leaves Wolf Trap Farm Park for L.A.'s Music Center he'll be faced with fund-raising challenges.

September 23, 1993|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia--America's only national park dedicated to the performing arts--is nestled 15 miles west of Washington in a woodsy and idyllic setting on 100 acres of farmland. While the recession chips away at the financial base of most arts institutions, Wolf Trap just completed its most financially successful summer season ever, according to its board chairman, Mary Beggs.

Shelton g. Stanfill, Wolf Trap's president and chief executive officer for six years, will face a different situation when he arrives in Los Angeles sometime before the first of the year to take over as president of the Music Center, the fund-raising arm of the downtown complex which is home to four resident performing arts companies: the Philharmonic, Music Center Opera, the Master Chorale and the Mark Taper Forum/Center Theatre Group.

The Music Center just ended the most difficult two years in its history, plagued by fund-raising difficulties fueled by an economic downturn that has hit Southern California harder than it has the rest of the nation. The center is also struggling to recover from controversies surrounding the center's former president, Esther Wachtell, who stepped down July 15 following allegations of lavish spending and questionable accounting practices.

And, while there are many words to describe post-riot Los Angeles, "idyllic" is not high on the list.

Stanfill is also moving from a two-theater center that serves 500,000 patrons a year to a complex whose various theaters serve four million patrons annually. The Music Center is also in the midst of several ambitious projects, including the reconfiguration of the Ahamanson Theatre and the construction of the $200-million Walt Disney Concert Hall, scheduled to open in 1997.

And, while Stanfill played a major role in programming at Wolf Trap, his job here will be primarily as a fund-raiser. Music Center chairman and acting president Robert B. Egelston said that, while the center predicts Stanfill's experience will attract donors and lead to improved relations with the center's resident companies, the new appointee will not make artistic decisions.

Aside from brief comments he made following his appointment Monday, Stanfill has been unavailable for comment. He left the country Tuesday for Grenoble, France--birthplace of his wife, Brigitte--where each year he vacations at the end of Wolf Trap's summer season.

But his East Coast colleagues, as well as members of the Music Center search committee who recommended him after considering 151 candidates, say that despite the differences in the positions, Stanfill is the right candidate for the job.

Along with their differences, Wolf Trap and the Music Center present the same fund-raising challenge. A Wolf Trap board member says Stanfill was in charge of raising between $10 million and $12 million a year. The Music Center's 1992-93 fund-raising goal--which it missed by $1.6 million--was $14.5 million.

Unlike Wachtell, who rose to the paid position after many years as a successful volunteer fund-raiser, Stanfill was chosen after an extensive international search by Korn/Ferry International, which narrowed the field to three candidates the Music Center refuses to name.

However, two search committee members confirmed that at least one potential candidate withdrew because of a long association with the Music Center and felt a continued presence would revive the infighting that has split the center's major donors into two bitter camps in recent years: those who supported Wachtell, and those who didn't.

Jean Firstenberg, director of the American Film Institute, acknowledged that she discussed the position with the Music Center, but said she never considered herself a viable candidate. But she said she was delighted by the news that Stanfill, whom she knew personally from her work in Washington, had been named.

"He is an inspiring person," Firstenberg said. "He has a terrific record of accomplishment, and I think it's very exciting to get someone from another part of the country . . . He is a very creative administrator, and a great advocate for the arts."

While tight secrecy surrounded the search, Melanne Verveer, a former Washington arts activist who is now a White House deputy assistant to President Clinton and deputy chief of staff to the First Lady, said that rumors that Stanfill would go to Los Angeles have circulated for weeks. "He has had a great tenure here, he is highly thought of," she said.

Developer James A. Thomas, the former Music Center chairman who saw the center through its most difficult period, was a member of the search committee. "To my knowledge, this has been the first time there has been this kind of search committee," Thomas said. "This was truly a reaching out to say, 'Let's get the best-qualified person, anywhere in this country, or the world.' "

Gerald Arpino, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet--the Music Center's former resident dance company which performs often at Wolf Trap and still comes to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as a guest company--said: "I can say from the Joffrey's experience that Shelton will work closely and imaginatively with companies and audiences to ensure the best possible experience for all."

Wolf Trap board member Robert Eidson said Wolf Trap finances went "from red to black" during Stanfill's tenure. He said Stanfill helped in the final stages of the center's recovery from a major fire in 1982 that destroyed the center's outdoor theater, the Filene Center, and instigated major projects such as creating a "Folk Masters" radio concert series and bringing the Bolshoi Opera to Wolf Trap. "Shelton's been good," he said. "He is not the kind of person who is flamboyant and loud. He's fine with working in the background."

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