The Sustainable Festival

in Culture, Entertainment, Neighbors

San Francisco’s Beloved Stern Grove Fresh at 75!

The secret to longevity, it turns out, is all in the business model.

Give it away for free — because afterwards, the people will love it so much, they’ll gladly pay for it.

A bit unorthodox, the Stern Grove Music Festival‘s formula might not fly in corporate boardrooms, but it’s hard to argue with numbers. Like 75, the anniversary the country’s longest-running admission-free music festival is observing this year. Or $2.1 million, the figure festival organizers like executive director Steven Haines must raise every year in order to carry out the festival’s eternal mission. And, 832 Folsom Street, the home to the Stern Grove Festival’s offices right here in the Yerba Buena neighborhood.

In return for bequeathing San Francisco 63 acres of meadow, hillside and trees –which are said to block the wind and keep an enclosed “natural amphitheater” 10 degrees warmer than the rest of town — festival benefactor Rosalie Meyer Stern decreed that all activities within the Grove must be arts-related, and must be given away for free. This has stayed constant, even as the festival shifted from a summer home for the San Francisco Symphony to attracting world-class musical talent, all with budget that relies on future generosity for 90 percent of its revenue.

“Many people think there’s this mysterious Stern Grove fund set up 70 something years ago,” Haines said. “That’s not the case.” Each Sunday show from late June to late August costs upwards of $100,000 to put on.  How does Stern survive, especially in a recession that’s seen many nonprofits and artistic foundations take heavy financial hits?

It was a model that worked during The Depression in the 1930s, when Stern – the Warren Hellman of her day, minus the banjo – started the show to benefit the arts, Depression-era relief for starving musicians. And it works now, after board chairman Douglas Goldman began attracting big-time acts from around the world like indie pop starlet Neko Case, nouveaux funk ensemble Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and this year’s finale OK Go, a blend of both classic and hip that draws 10,000 people a week.

It works because the festival is self-sustaining: touring acts love to play in the intimate cathedral of trees, tucked less than a block away from Highway 1 in a major city yet a world apart. And the people who love to come to hear them play bring the festival a key part of its budget every week, dropping about $10,000 in unsolicited cash donations on their way out the door, said Haines. “It’s so much more than a free concert,” he said. “It’s a meeting place.”

That’s what keeps the music playing. “There is no silver bullet,” said Haines, who noted that the patron generosity is vital to paying the bills just as is the corporate and foundational support, which helped bankroll the $15 million renovation completed in 2005. “It really does take the village.”

Maybe it’s not such a crazy business model. Not if it can bring hipsters in from the Mission to hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 one week – as will be played July 8 – and khaki pants-wearing homeowners from the Peninsula to hear indie rock the next week, an unlikely union that not only funds the Grove, but cleans it, too.

“They take their trash with them,” Haines said. “It’s the grand dame of the city, and it’s treated with the ultimate respect.”