Barrett Wissman: Breaking Barriers

Who is Barrett Wissman? And why was his name dragged through the mud?

By Chere Di Boscio

Carlo Petrini encouraged us to savour locally grown, home cooked food when he launched the ‘slow food’ movement in 1986. Kate Fletcher coined the term ‘slow fashion’ to refer to solidly made, eternally stylish ethical clothing that would last throughout the seasons. And now, Barrett Wissman brings us the concept of truly allowing ourselves to become absorbed in the arts via what could be called the ‘slow entertainment’ movement.

The Forbes columnist, financier and Co-Chairman of IMG Artists (one of the largest performing arts management groups in the world) has been key in organising unique festivals such as the Festival Del Sole, the Abu Dhabi Festival, the Placido Domingo Festival and Tribeca Firenze, all of which not only offer a stellar lineup of performing artists and entertainment, but give guests the opportunity to enjoy exquisite food, wine and historical exhibitions in a culturally rich environment.

Beethoven once said that “music is the mediator between spiritual and sensual life,” and Wissman seems to have embraced this notion fully. These events aren’t intended to lightly entertain; they’re not meant to be half-ignored whilst patrons film them on iPhones then Tweet and Instagram their demi-experiences around the world. No, with their magical mixtures of music, poetry, art, culinary experiences, wine tasting, vineyard explorations, lectures on music, yoga and Chinese medicine, these festivals are a full-on, sensual–and   even spiritual–experience.

Barrett Wissman and Sophia Loren

This is true not only for patrons, but for the performers themselves, too. Wissman carefully selects artists from different disciplines and allowing them to extend their talents and passions into branches of the arts they’re not normally associated with.

Some examples? Robert Redford reciting poetry in perfect synchronicity with the strains of an orchestra; Jeremy Irons throwing his heart and soul into the role of Chopin while accompanied by a Chopin sonata; Anthony Hopkins receiving a standing ovation for his conducting his own works as a composer;   Sting and Trudie Styler performing alongside some of the greatest classical musicians in the world as the passionate and turbulent couple, Robert and Clara Schumann.

“These events create electricity; they exist in an instant that will never happen again,” says Wissman emphatically. It is his ability to assemble the necessary elements to create these euphoric moments and his tireless promotion of the arts that have led some to call him a ‘modern Medici;’ but like those most famous of Florentines, he has also not been without his scandals.


Most notably, thanks to his thick book of high-ranking connections, which included pension fund officers in New York and former ‘Auto Czar’ Steve Rattner, he received millions of dollars in fees as an investment advisor to the New York state pension fund. Although taking such fees isn’t necessarily illegal and Wissman was never accused of misappropriating funds,  in 2009 New York state officials argued Wissman “paid to play” and traded in on his access to state officials. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge.

“Yes, I made mistakes”, Wissman admits. “ I made serious errors in judgement, it turned my life upside down and I have paid dearly for those mistakes.”

It seems rather incongruent that this multi-lingual, multi-talented businessman and musician would have become involved in such an affair. Wissman is often quoted as saying “the arts are extremely relevant in making us stop to think of what we are as human beings.” So what kind of human being  is  he, then?

“I am an entrepreneur, a musician and a staunch supporter of the arts,” he states immediately. “I fight for the importance of music education in our schools and have closely worked with and supported organisations that promote arts education and diversity: an example is the Sphinx Organisation which promotes the education and careers of young, marginalised musicians; I ensure those who could never have access to instruments have them…”


He has indeed made significant contributions towards developing the arts through his tireless fundraising efforts for arts education whether it is raising money at the Festival del Sole in the Bay Area for grass roots initiatives in the schools (this year the auction at the Festival which Wissman is the Artistic Director of raised over $1.4mm for the local community foundation) or loaning instruments to deserving young, talented musicians that can’t afford to buy them themselves.

Barrett Wissman firmly states, however, that the one accomplishment he is proudest of is continuing to help people transcend cultural, linguistic and geographic barriers by bringing them together through a common appreciation of the arts.

Ultimately, he believes the growth of his ‘slow entertainment’ approach will result in nothing less than a ‘broader cultural understanding between people and contribute to the appreciation of what makes us human beings again’–which is something often too easily forgotten in our fast-paced digital age.


Chere Di Boscio
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