Gen. McChrystal's talk at Cal Poly was major money loser

Ticket sales for retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s talk at the Performing Arts Center on Thursday fell short by nearly half of his $50,000 speaking fee, according to the director of Cal Poly Arts.

More than 600 people attended the speech at the Christopher Cohan Center, a venue that seats 1,282 people, Director Steven Lerian said.

Ticket sales amounted to $23,665, and Thoma Electric Co. in San Luis Obispo provided $2,500 in sponsorship money.

“That shortfall will come out of the Cal Poly Arts account at Cal Poly Corporation (not tax dollars),” Lerian said in an e-mail to The Tribune. “This is our operation and program account from which we pay for all artist and production fees.”

Cal Poly Arts is the primary presenter of shows at the PAC, operating under the auspices of the nonprofit Cal Poly Corporation.

The goal of Cal Poly Arts is to recoup the cost of each event, but coordinators are primarily concerned with annual fund balances, not attendance numbers of individual shows, Lerian said.

McChrystal, the former leader of the war in Afghanistan, resigned this summer after the publication of a Rolling Stone article with comments attributed to him and his staff that were critical of President Barack Obama’s administration. He approached Cal Poly about the speaking event this fall through his agent, a Cal Poly graduate, Lerian said.

Thursday’s event included a 40-minute question-and-answer session with the audience. McChrystal responded to questions ranging from whether the U.S. government was acting responsibly in waging war in Afghanistan to the value of public service as a career choice.

“While we were somewhat disappointed in the turnout, we understand that having major public figures as speakers is a new thing here at Cal Poly and on the Central Coast,” Lerian said. “It is also valuable on an educational level for Cal Poly students to have the opportunity to experience important political, social, business, environmental and literary figures here on campus.”

Lerian said Cal Poly Arts — which supports its events through ticket sales and fundraising — could bring in more speakers in its 2010-11 season and plans to have a series of three or four speakers in 2011-12.

Cal Poly’s Provocative Perspective series — which coordinated a Nov. 18 appearance by Jenna Bush Hager and an upcoming talk with Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. in February — operates separately from Cal Poly Arts under Cal Poly’s Division of Student Affairs. That series is free to the public.

The only other speaker Cal Poly Arts has brought in so far this season is David Sedaris, an author and radio personality who sold out his Oct. 28 event at the Cohan Center.

Other shows this season have met with mixed results. Comedian and musician Steve Martin sold out his Oct. 6 concert, while vocalist Diane Shuur and the San Luis Obispo Symphony drew only 419 ticket holders Oct. 10.

Cal Poly Arts has a budget of $700,000 to $800,000 each year; it must raise money to cover financial shortfalls.

Average attendance for shows at the PAC is just under 60 percent, Lerian said, which equates to about 760 people per performance.

Lerian said educational value is considered in bringing in speakers, as in McChrystal’s case.

“My discussions with campus administration led us to the conclusion that it was valuable for the student population to have the opportunity to see him,” said Lerian, adding that providing quality speakers is “an important part of a university’s role regionally.”