The Luther Burbank Center (LBC) is one of the North Bay’s premier arts and events center. While the facility enjoys being recognized as the go-to regional venue for big name performances, it has struggled to promote the educational programs that are as much a part of its mission as a Trevor Noah appearance.
Enter Mark DeSaulnier, the LBC’s new director of marketing. His first goal since taking the reins is to ramp up the public’s knowledge of programs on offer at LBC. Can he elevate the venue’s more civic-minded profile?
“I think one of the big misconceptions is the idea that all we do is put on shows,” says DeSaulnier. “We do these world-class performances here, but we are really a nonprofit arts organization. Our larger goal is to be an arts organization to the community, and those are the initiatives we are pushing now.”
The center’s three-E’s denote its broader mandate: Enrich. Educate. Entertain. Its most recent financial statements from 2017-18 bear out an organization that’s provided education and outreach to some 40,000 children and provided discounted tickets to some 15,700 community members a year.
DeSaulnier joins an organization with a $12.7 million operating budget as of 2017-18 and with $10 million in operating expenses over that year, 77 percent of which goes to program services. Administration costs account for some 15 percent of its annual budget.
It enjoys donor support from a wide range of Sonoma County persons and business—donations have flowed from PG&E, to the Redwood Credit Union, to Healdsburg Democratic Party power brokers Tony Crabb and Barbara Grasseschi. State Senator Mike McGuire’s a big fan, too, and helped broker a $100,000-plus donation from Redwood Credit Union and the Press Democrat after the 2017 wildfires that damaged the center.
The LBC’s arts programs are mostly aimed at kids and the organization works to help parents scale the typical hurdles families might run up against when considering an arts program for a child. That’s mostly about money.
“We look for ways to tear down any barriers that may come up, whether it be pricing—most of our programs are free of charge—or whether it be accessibility. We offer subsidized transportation,” says Ashleigh Worley, director of education and community engagement. “We want to be where we are needed.”
The center emphasizes programs that cater to overlooked members of the community, creating an Alzheimer’s singing group and launching a Latinx advisory council in recent years. If Luther Burbank was himself an alleged eugenicist along with all of that great stuff he did with plants, the center named in his honor has taken a more multicultural-friendly view of the world, if not Sonoma County.
DeSaulnier sees this outreach as critical to the future identity of the LBC. “The important question is ‘how can we continue to inspire inclusion? What does that look like? How does that affect our programming? How can we communicate that all are welcome.’ That is the key question to always be asking.”
DeSaulnier comes to the LBC from his previous role as executive director of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir where he emphasised inclusion and celebrated difference. Indeed, he was responsible for bringing the choir to the Green Mountain Center for the Arts last year (See “Choir on Fire,” Jan. 30, 2018). In his executive role, he brought together the Oakland Gospel Choir and the San Francisco Gay Mens’ Chorus. His goal is to bring that same spirit to the LBC.
He’s nothing if not strident in his belief in the power of the arts as a catalyst for community-building and DeSalunier gives props to Elton John and his poignant “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” which he heard when he was around 14. The opening lyrics are just about as iconic as they come, and DeSalunier took the “old man” Elton’s message to heart:
When are you gonna come down?
When are you going to land?
I should have stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man
The song goes on from there to describe a man who has given up the penthouse for the plough—proverbially in Elton’s case. But here’s DeSalunier, taking up that same proverbial plough in the ag-lands of Sonoma County on behalf of the LBC.
“Up to that point,” he recalls, “I was only thinking about having fun.”