Rachel Fine discovers her calling by leading arts organizations
by Richard Chang
Not everyone who studies piano and music in college grows up to be a world-class, professional artist.
Some grow up to be world-class, professional arts executives.
Rachel Fine attended UC Irvine in the 1990s as a transfer student, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from UCI in 1994.
After training for many years as a classical pianist, she briefly considered an academic career in musicology. However, thanks to her broad education at UCI, she expanded her field of vision and became an arts administrator and leader for various arts organizations. She’s now CEO and executive director of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, a post she’s held since 2018. (She was managing director there since 2015.)
“I knew nothing about UC Irvine when I chose to move down south,” said Fine, who was born and raised in Berkeley, and initially attended college at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. At Eastman, the young classical pianist suffered from repetitive stress injuries in her wrists, and needed to take a leave of absence.
UCI “ended up being a wonderful place for me, a place where I could not just study music,” Fine said. “It opened up my eyes and my world to other professional opportunities outside of music. I took a lot of classes outside of my department.”
At UC Irvine, Fine studied under Nina Scolnik, professor of teaching and a veteran member of the piano faculty. She also happened to be an expert in rehabilitating musicians with injuries.
“I think Nina cultivated a very supportive piano studio,” Fine said. “I think to have a professor who’s not only an outstanding teacher, but an excellent performer and musician — it’s critical, but it’s also inspiring.
“Piano teachers come in all different shapes and sizes. The strict Russian stereotype would never have worked for me. I respond much better to a loving, caring, nurturing approach.”
Scolnik, who started teaching at UCI in 1979 and still teaches today in the Department of Music, said Fine was an ideal student. Under Scolnik’s holistic, whole-body tutelage, Fine recovered most of her playing abilities.
“She was clearly a musician of incredible imagination, intellect and creativity,” Scolnik said of her former student and current friend. “She just had the kind of polished maturity, grace and vitality in her playing. All of those things were there. She had a warm, expressive sound, a radiant sound.
“It has great bearing on what she does now, and what she has done. It takes imagination, and it takes a lot of creativity to be successful at what she’s doing.”
From Academia to Administration
Upon graduating from UCI, Fine won a full scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in musicology at Yale. But after just a few classes, she knew she “did not want to be an academic.” So she took a leave of absence and wound up back in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she started volunteering for the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the San Francisco Opera. She also met her husband in the Bay Area, Christopher Hawthorne, former architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times and now chief design officer for the city of Los Angeles.
Fine had stints in New York as an associate administrative director at The Juilliard School, and in New Mexico as a rehearsal administrator at the Santa Fe Opera. She wound up with her husband and family in Pasadena, serving as executive director of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus from 2007 to 2010, and executive director of the
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) from 2010 to 2015.
In 2015, she served as a consultant to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, then joined as managing director that same year. She was promoted to CEO and executive director in 2018.
“I wouldn’t wish this pandemic on anybody. At the same time, I have learned so much more about managing an organization in a crisis, to ensure that we’re going to persevere."
As CEO at the Wallis, Fine oversaw a staff of 55 full-time employees before the pandemic, plus dozens of part-time workers. Her pre-pandemic budget was approximately $10.5 million annually.
She had to cut her staff to 25 during the depths of the pandemic, but she says the Wallis is starting to hire again.
Fine keeps her eye on the budget and day-to-day operations, and now plans and oversees online programming. She’s also in charge of partnerships and fundraising for the institution, which opened in 2013 in the building that used to be the Beverly Hills post office.
“We are doing everything we can to keep our patrons and donors engaged and create relevant content,” Fine said about leading the Wallis through the coronavirus pandemic.
“Again, this goes back to being a person with many different interests, and an insatiable curiosity. As a lifelong learner, a job would not be interesting if it didn’t consistently present challenges and opportunities for me to be a better leader.
“I wouldn’t wish this pandemic on anybody. At the same time, I have learned so much more about managing an organization in a crisis, to ensure that we’re going to persevere. You have to be endlessly creative, resourceful and flexible — you have to call on all of those things.”
Fine said she has experience leading nonprofit organizations through crisis, taking two other SoCal institutions — LACO and the L.A. Children’s Chorus — through the Great Recession.
“People aren’t giving as much,” she acknowledged. “It’s a big challenge to be completely shut down with no end date in sight. But it is absolutely making me a better leader, there’s no question.”
Edgar Gamino, a senior product manager for Amazon Web Services, worked at the Wallis from 2014-2017, first as a marketing coordinator, then as a digital marketing manager. Also a UCI graduate, Gamino (B.A., ’10) worked with Fine from 2015-17.
“She intuitively understands the importance of marketing in growing the influence of the Wallis in Los Angeles,” Gamino said of his former boss.
“She has a love and passion for the arts, but is also just a very strong business leader. She’s a leader who’s generous with her time. She had an open-door policy. She’s dedicated to the growth of her employees. I’m just a testament to that.”
About Fine’s leadership style, Gamino said, “She has a very calm demeanor. I think that’s a very positive attribute in a leader. There are certainly times when things get very stressful in the performing arts.”
While working at the Wallis, Gamino applied to business school, and says Fine helped him through the process.
“She certainly is a mentor,” he said. “The thing I remember is when she said, ‘Focus on people.’ That was the thing that she is very focused on in her role — how do you keep people challenged, motivated, fulfilled? I took that to heart.”
Arts and Wellbeing
Fine sees a deep connection between the arts and mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. (That’s also the theme for the Claire Trevor School of the Arts this academic year.)
“For me personally, no community is complete or well without rich and robust arts offerings,” she said. “I feel that way about my own life, and my family’s life too. Whether or not my children go into music or the arts, that’s up to them. But I want them to have the understanding that the arts are an integral part of wellness.
“It’s not just physical exercise and diet. The arts are equally important. I would not be where I am today without studying and pursuing piano at a very young age.”
Despite the tony town’s reputation for luxury, humongous estates and high-end boutiques, Fine said the Wallis has connected to “the soul of Beverly Hills.” She has fostered educational programming that has welcomed more than 10,000 students of various backgrounds to visit and perform at the Wallis.
“What I’ve come to love and appreciate about the city is how interesting it is,” she said. “It’s an incredibly intricate, interesting city.”
And despite the uncertainties of the economy and the pandemic, Fine says she remains “optimistic, hopeful and passionate.”
“I know some are feeling depleted. I want to assure them that we are going to make it, and this is worth fighting for, and in the end, this is going to be a better organization in the long run.”
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