It was a no brainer for Azra Variscic to step into the director of development role for the Burbank Arts for All Foundation. Variscic lived in the intersection between art, education and nonprofits for more than 15 years.
She said her experiences as a teenager in a war-riddled Yugoslavia instilled a dedication to help communities in need.
“During [the war], I felt like I was living on a deserted island,” said Variscic. “All you have left is music, painting and books — these things in the classroom I feel like were essential to my peers, my classmates and I getting over the trauma of the daily bombings.”
The importance of arts in her childhood and early interactions with organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross and UNICEF encouraged her to pursue careers in the nonprofit world.
She comes to the foundation from the Learning Rights Law Center, where she raised the legal service nonprofit’s visibility and funding through campaigns and marketing. In the past, she’s worked for Step up on Second campaigns, which raised $20 million to build sustainable housing units for homeless people.
“Most of the candidates that we had spoken to just didn’t have the depth of experience that Azra brings to the table. Nor do they have the passion and attitude that Azra brought to the table,” said Tom Vice, co-chair of the foundation’s board of directors.
Variscic is responsible for organizing Burbank Arts for All events, building relationships, expanding funding strategies and the giving programs. Trina Pitchford, who moved on to work for Open Hearts Foundation last fall, previously held the role while also managing the overall operation as executive director.
The foundation’s mission is to ensure students have equal access to a quality arts education. Since 2006, they have worked closely with Burbank Unified through grant-making and outreach programming. Burbank Arts for All is known for its biannual grants for district teachers, commonly used for materials, field trips and guest instructors.
Last year, the foundation handed over a $100,000 check to maintain music instruction at the elementary level in Burbank Unified as the district was proposing cutting three teaching positions to balance a $3.5-million deficit. The donation helped the district keep one music teacher and closed the financial gap on a second position. Jill Vander Borght, Burbank Arts for All co-chair, described it as the largest grant in the foundation’s history.
The school district’s monetary predicament hasn’t changed for the better. Variscic’s third week into the job comes in conjunction with the board of education passing a resolution to cut nearly 30 full-time positions at the end of the school year to close the $3.2-million budget deficit, including three music elementary teachers and one art teacher.
“Obviously that’s horrifying news because we’ve worked so hard for many years to maintain and build programs that didn’t exist,” Vice said.
Although the foundation hasn’t spoken to the district about the potential cuts, Vice said “we will do whatever we can to help address the needs of the district, but we can only do so much.”
Variscic reiterated the foundation’s support for Measure I, the parcel tax with a 10-cents-per-square-foot annual fee for property owners to generate $9.1 million for the school district on an annual basis for 12 years.
She added, “As long as we have the support of the whole community, we’re not just a Band-Aid in these situations. Our schools need consistent funding sources to guarantee such positions won’t be on the chopping block year after year.”