Image
Alex Sarian, President and CEO of Arts Commons, inside the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary, Canada.

The Culture Connector

Arts visionary Alex Sarian sees art and community as one


For Alex Sarian, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who sit back and wait for opportunities and those who leap forward, lean in, and create them. This philosophy is woven into his views on culture, communities, and larger public institutions, which he writes about in his upcoming book The Audacity of Relevance. It’s also a continuous thread in his own fascinating story of success.

Today, he stands at the intersection between community and culture as the president and CEO of Arts Commons, one of Canada’s foremost arts centers and home to the largest cultural infrastructure project in the country’s history, located in Calgary, a city in the province of Alberta. Fresh off a business meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—just an average day for Sarian—he sums up the ethos behind his mission: “The arts should be the place where people can gather together, regardless of who they are or where they come from.”

Though born in Canada, Sarian’s career in the arts began on a different continent—South America. His Canadian mother and Romanian-Armenian father moved the entire family to Argentina to be closer to his paternal family, which had emigrated from Bucharest to South America in the 1960s.

Image
Sarian takes part in an Arts Commons education activity with students.

Sarian takes part in an Arts Commons education activity with students.
Caption
Sarian takes part in an Arts Commons education activity with students.

“Community and family are always part of what drives me and my work. While I may not speak Armenian nor have I ever visited the country, that sort of search and hunger for the Armenian community kept me afloat regardless of where I lived—whether it be Toronto or Buenos Aires or a dorm room in New York,” he says. “If that’s the definition of Armenian, then I feel incredibly Armenian and incredibly blessed.”

The arts should be the place where people can gather together, regardless of who they are or where they come from.

In addition to his Armenian roots, discovering the arts in high school through drama classes opened his eyes to the power of community: “The arts allowed me to become the person I am today,” he says. “Being a young person and falling in love with arts education was transformative.” He took a leap of faith and moved to New York to pursue an undergraduate degree in that subject. “Moving from Buenos Aires to New York when I was 18 was terrifying—as I assume it’s terrifying for anybody of that age to move to a different country,” he says.

Before his freshman year at New York University (NYU), he already had a part-time job and student housing in place. But he was still searching for a community, let alone a familiar friendly face. “I reached out to AGBU and the next thing you know, I was in an NYU dorm room of the Global Leadership Program (then known as the AGBU Summer Internship Program).  I went from being scared and lonely my first week in New York to living with the most incredible community of Armenian students from all over the world that took me under their wing.”

Right before graduation, however, Sarian received a letter from NYU stating that as an international student, he would be required to find a job that would sponsor a work visa or else he would be forced to leave the country. “There’s nothing more sobering to a 22-year-old international student than to get a letter like that.”

Image
Sarian gives a keynote speech at the 2023 Tessitura Learning & Community Conference in Orlando, FL.

Sarian gives a keynote speech at the 2023 Tessitura Learning & Community Conference in Orlando, FL.
Caption
Sarian gives a keynote speech at the 2023 Tessitura Learning & Community Conference in Orlando, FL.

To make matters worse, his dream of becoming a K-12 teacher was put on hold after learning the New York City Department of Education had a hiring freeze. His academic advisor wisely steered him in the direction of a master’s in arts administration, a path that would combine his dual passion for the arts and education and could lead to leadership positions at nonprofits or large corporations.

After finishing his graduate degree with a focus in arts administration at NYU, Sarian was determined to stay in New York to become the head of education at an arts organization. “At a crazy young age, I became the director of education at an off-Broadway theater company,” he says, adding that he started this career during the Great Recession that began in 2007.  Learning how to fundraise for the arts, he realized, would become crucial for the survival of arts projects, which is when his lightbulb went off.

“I remember going to the executive director of the company and saying that there will always be more support for education than there will ever be for the arts. If we can fundraise for an off-Broadway play then we can absolutely fundraise for theater education.” This idea became a paradigm shift for the company and by the time Sarian left the organization, education had become the single largest source of contributed revenues to the organization—all without charging kids or families a single dollar. “On the back of our artistic activity we had actually created a business model to sustain arts education,” he says.

The success of the fundraising campaign caught the eye of a former professor from NYU, who had just been hired at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to reimagine education. “One of the first positions he was looking to hire was for a director of finance and I was like, well, that’s definitely not me.” Little did Sarian know then that position was indeed made for him, and he became director of finance for Lincoln Center, overseeing education and growing the budget from a $4 million to a $12 million operation.

“It became one of the fastest growing areas within Lincoln Center in its history, and it reinforced how important education is,” he says. “It taught me that many of these programs were the only opportunity that Lincoln Center had to engage with the New York City community that had been historically excluded from the Lincoln Center experience.”

Image
A rendering of the Arts Commons Transformation project, the largest cultural infrastructure project in Canadian history.

A rendering of the Arts Commons Transformation project, the largest cultural infrastructure project in Canadian history.
Caption
A rendering of the Arts Commons Transformation project, the largest cultural infrastructure project in Canadian history.

Over the course of seven years, Sarian ensured Lincoln Center had partnerships in all five New York City boroughs, working with public housing associations and public schools to ensure Lincoln Center was a more accessible and relevant institution to everyday students. This was in addition to overseeing international consulting. “I was able to understand that a commitment to community means not just sitting back and letting audiences come to you—and this actually changes the DNA of an organization.”

This “lean in” mentality, once again, changed the landscape of Lincoln Center fundraising under Sarian’s leadership. “There’s two kinds of philanthropy —one that begs for funding and the other that inspires donors to contribute.  I believe that values of humility, curiosity, and service are prerequisites for the latter.”

Sarian still feels genuinely humbled by his successes, although a peak moment in his career, he admits, was having the great Canadian-Armenian singer Raffi follow him on social media. “That was one of the greatest moments in my adult life,” he says with a chuckle. “There’s something so beautiful about how that man has introduced music and the arts to the world.”

After learning all that he could from Lincoln Center, Sarian decided to work his magic in Calgary with Arts Commons. Right now, he’s working on fundraising for a new arts campus that is set to break many records in Canada, including the single largest philanthropic gift to the performing arts in Canadian history. This project has become one of the motivating forces behind downtown Calgary’s fast revitalization, no small feat for an arts enterprise. The design is heavily influenced by the way indigenous communities built lodges throughout the history of Canada, Sarian explained.

“Everything from our programming to our design is influenced by our commitment to community,” he says. “I’m convinced this shared public space will promote the shared human experiences which are essential for restoring empathy in society—especially in these post-pandemic times.” 

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Insider. end character

About the AGBU Insider

AGBU Insider profiles extraordinary AGBU program alumni across a diverse set of industries and passions. With exclusive interviews and photography, each issue reveals the Armenian impact on society, community, and industry.