A distinguished arts career is not made in a day. Rachel Fine navigated significant professional challenges and triumphs to find success as the managing director who, as of 2015, is leading The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts toward a bright future.
“I’m not sure that I ever gave a lot of tho-ught to what I really wanted to do, I was just on this trajectory of practicing hard, competing hard, and taking it all very seriously,” says Fine, who began her career as a trained classical pianist.
Born and raised in Berkeley, Fine spent her formative years attending school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her parents had a piano at home, so she began taking lessons at age five, then started competing and won her first piano competition the next year.
A Key Change
While attending college at the Eastman School for Music in Rochester, New York, Fine began experiencing repetitive stress injuries in her wrists. Finding it difficult to play piano at capacity, she took a leave of absence and realized that she was facing a major obstacle.
“You really can’t have a major physical setback like that and expect to continue on the same path,” says Fine. “After a lot of physical therapy and retraining, it just became clear to me that I was not going to be a solo pianist.”
Fine transferred to the University of California, Irvine to connect with professor Nina Scolnik, who specializes in rehabilitation for injured pianists. She considers the move a blessing in disguise, as she regained 85 percent of her original playing capacity and, for the first time ever, began exploring curriculum outside of music.
By stepping outside of the practice room, Fine realized how wonderful it could be to collaborate with others. She completed her last year of college while studying abroad in Vienna, Austria and earned a bachelor’s degree in Music and Piano Performance.
Rather than be competitive, I think we want to be a contributor to broadening the base of interest and support for arts and culture in LA.
“That was probably the single best year of my undergraduate experience,” Fine recalls. “I spent lots of time not just studying, but traveling and getting outside of my practice room for the first time.”
Fine was accepted on full scholarship to study music history at Yale, but soon after classes began, she realized that her passion lay elsewhere. She took a leave of absence and returned to the Bay Area to volunteer at various arts organizations like the San Francisco Opera and Oakland East Bay Symphony. Intrigued by business operations of arts organizations, the visionary took on her first full-time role in arts administration as a development associate in 1997 for the San Francisco-based, Grammy award–winning chorus ensemble Chanticleer.
Moving to New York was not part of Fine’s plan, but eventually she followed her now-husband and LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne to the city where, at the time, he was an arts journalism fellow at Columbia University. In 1998, she began working as an associate administrative director for the vocal arts department at The Juilliard School, also taking on seasonal jobs with arts organizations like the Santa Fe Opera.
“I think somehow you earn your stripes by living and working in New York, so I did that for a while,” explains Fine, who spent a year as a fellow at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. until settling with her husband in the Bay Area to have their first child in 2004.
Fine worked as the director of development for the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco until 2007, when the family relocated again to Pasadena and she became the executive director of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. She left to serve as the executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from 2010-15 before becoming a senior consultant for DeVos Institute of Arts Management in 2015.
Paul Crewes, Rachel Fine, David Bohnett
A Diverse Portfolio
Proud of the seamless visitor experience that she has created during her initial years at The Wallis, Fine continues to focus on growing education and programming, which she says makes the campus widely accessible to a diverse audience. She also prioritizes local partnerships and collaborations to support LA’s artistic community.
More than 10,000 students of all ages and musical abilities now frequent The Wallis, which features both youth theater and summer camps. Ongoing partnerships include one with the Miracle Project, a theater program for children on the spectrum and their peers and another with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that sends 6-8,000 student visitors to The Wallis’ two theaters each year.
“I think so many of the skills that I learned as a pianist…figure into everything that I do now,” Fine explains.
Guiding the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and Chamber Orchestra through a recession taught Fine the importance of creativity and resourcefulness, especially when it comes to making hard decisions. Maintaining a high level of optimism, she says, is also a key to success in any job or workplace.
With zero experience at startups, Fine found her greatest lesson to be building a healthy audience and donor base after the organization opened its doors. The Wallis now enjoys three income streams: subscriptions and single ticket sales, which do not cover costs alone; external event rentals; and various fundraising initiatives. A portfolio of contributed income is given by individuals, foundations, corporations, government sources, and special events.
I think so many of the skills that I learned as a pianist…figure into everything that I do now
“Rather than be competitive, I think we want to be a contributor to broadening the base of interest and support for arts and culture in LA,” Fine says. “It’s something we’re thinking about every single day, making people feel that Beverly Hills is a city of many things and not just luxury shopping.”
Fine finds inspiration in the leadership and collaboration that she shares with artistic director Paul Crewes. She also applauds the great dedication of The Wallis board and staff and considers her former professor Scolnik a mentor who nurtured her through the loss of her father and piano-playing ability.
Since 2001 Fine has worked with American arts administrator Michael Kaiser, who encouraged her to take on her current role, and whose books and teachings have since shaped her business strategy. In the end, she considers her proudest accomplishments to be her family.