The president of the Bay Area’s leading independent arts presenter is retiring.
Ruth Felt founded San Francisco Performances in 1979 on a shoestring, and since then she’s brought the work of some of the world’s best jazz, classical, and dance artists to the Herbst Theatre, among other venues.
“I’m not shy about telling people how old I am,” Felt said in a phone interview yesterday. “I’m 76 years old and will be 77 when I retire.”
Felt said she wants more time to herself, though the veteran arts presenter was vague on whether that means more time for personal travel, gardening, or good books.
Felt said she plans to bring in a new CEO who can keep up with the changing needs and demographics of younger audiences. Her successor has not yet been chosen.
Felt worked in the presenting program at University of California Los Angeles before joining San Francisco Opera in 1971 as personal assistant for the company’s imperious general director at the time, Kurt Herbert Adler. She said she began to notice that San Francisco was missing out when smaller chamber and dance groups came to town. So she quit the opera, raised $100,000, and started SF Performances. In the early years, she used her apartment as her fledgling organization's headquarters.
“It was a tough decision,” Felt said of leaving the opera. "A lot of people thought I was crazy to leave such a wonderful job and in some ways I suppose I was.”
San Francisco Performances now has about a $3 million annual budget, and features a nine month season of established and younger artists of global acclaim. Over the years, the organization's roster has included classical pianists like András Schiff and Gloria Cheng, the a cappella vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and San Francisco singer Paula West.
In addition, since 1989, San Francisco Performances has sponsored the Alexander String Quartet as a resident chamber group at San Francisco State University. Felt says this was an important decision at a time when public schools were cutting back on music education. “They became the beginning of the programs that we bring into public schools,” Felt said.
Felt is scheduled to retire next May, at the end of the current San Francisco Performances season.
Felt said she hopes her successor will maintain San Francisco Performances’ culture of honesty and transparency.
“I believe that kind of atmosphere is a very healthy one that allows smart people to take risks,” Felt said.