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Close-Up: Jon Teeuwissen

California Center of the Arts CEO oversees new period of financial growth

California Center for the Arts President and CEO Jon Teeuwissen has overseen the financial turnarounds of three major institutions in his life -- one in Chicago, one in New Orleans and one at the Escondido arts complex itself.

Teeuwissen's tenure at the organization started in a consultation role in 2010, after a long period of the center operating at a deficit. And after the exit of previous CEO Vicky Basehore in 2011, Teeuwissen signed on as interim CEO before ultimately becoming the full-time head of the organization early in 2012.

After two years of hard work, and after 14 years running a deficit out of 17 years total, Teeuwissen can proudly state that the California Center of the Arts ended its last fiscal year in the black.

"The center had been running deficits for most of the years of operation," Teeuwissen said.

However, he noted, "For the year that we closed in 2010-11, we were very close to break-even, and for '11-'12, we had significant surplus to re-invest in much needed infrastructure here."

Before Teeuwissen began working with the center, however, some measures were already being put in place to help minimize losses.

Jon Teeuwissen is president and CEO of the California Center for the Arts. Staff photo: Sarah Strong

In 2009, Escondido City Council voted to adopt a change in the center's booking policy. Under the new model, there's a greater emphasis on renting out the two theaters on its campus to outside promoters, thus reducing the level of risk it takes on. Additionally, any performances that are produced in-house must be fully underwritten before they can take place.

According to Teeuwissen, however, this was only one small step toward restoring the institution's fiscal health.

"From my perspective, that wasn't really about raising money, it was about reducing risk," Teeuwissen said. "When an organization presents (its own performance), they kind of own the show. So if it sells well, you do well. And if it doesn't sell well, you take a big loss.

"Often, when I mention the California Center for the Arts, people associate us with theaters, because they think performances, but that's really just a small percentage of what we do here," Teeuwissen continued. "We're a 12-acre campus and we have several different business centers on the campus."

In addition to its 1,500-seat concert hall and 400-seat theater, the California Center for the Arts also boasts a conference center that hosts corporate events, weddings and bar mitzvahs; classrooms used for hosting educational programs; and a 9,000-square-foot museum, which re-opened in September after a year-long closure.

Teeuwissen notes that the conference center is the most profitable facility on campus, since it can be rented out for so many different purposes.

However, when he began consulting with the center, he and the board of directors began to look at every possible avenue as a means of turning around the organization's finances.

"We really looked at everything that was happening here, with a completely fresh look," Teeuwissen said. "We completely restructured staffing. Our greatest asset here is actually the physical plant. So a lot of what we looked at is how we can repurpose space. And our ultimate goal is to have activity ongoing in every nook and cranny 24-7. So what we've been involved with is looking at every piece of the property and in many cases repurposing the space."

One way in which the center has been able to repurpose its space was to rent out its underutilized classrooms to the Classical Academy, an Escondido K-8 charter school. And the museum, during its year of being closed to exhibits, was also used as a secondary conference center.

Teeuwissen cited a number of different potential ideas for growth in the future. One is the possibility of utilizing a grass-covered outdoor field called "The Great Green," which can comfortably accommodate upwards of 5,000 people, as a concert venue.

Other ideas include expanding community events like the center's annual Fourth of July and holiday tree-lighting events into bigger festivals with a wider array of attractions, as well as rotating in more temporary exhibits at the museum and revamping its ticketing system in order to better target its marketing efforts.

"We've gone from survival mode to sustainable mode and starting in the new fiscal year in July, we'll be in growth mode as we continue to build on what we've already accomplished in the last two years," Teeuwissen said.

Teeuwissen has a long history in arts administration, beginning with a dance theater company called American Dance Machine, after initially earning an undergraduate degree in accounting from West Virginia State University and running a couple of Capezio retail shops.

From there, he moved on to working at a summer festival, then spent three years with the Dance Theater of Harlem and eventually to the New Orleans Ballet Organization, where he oversaw his first financial turnaround of a non-profit organization.

"It was an organization that at one point had a $4 million budget with $2.4 million in debt," Teeuwissen said. "So it was very close to closure. But we did a complete turnaround. It took about five years. And we turned it into one of the premier dance organizations in the country."

In 2001, at the Joffrey Ballet, Teeuwissen helmed the second financial turnaround of his career, and held an eight-year position at the long-running Chicago institution before returning to school to earn a master's degree from Stanford's School of Business.

It was shortly afterward that he began his work with the California Center for the Arts.

Looking forward to the next fiscal year, Teeuwissen is optimistic about growth, but acknowledges the financial challenges ahead. More than anything, however, he stresses the importance of the California Center for the Arts being relevant both in Escondido, and in North County.

"Financial has definitely been the biggest challenge, and because the economy is sluggish, it will continue to be a challenge," Teeuwissen said. "One of our biggest challenges is how to be creative in terms of fully utilizing the space and engaging the community -- which is really our primary focus."

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