Off Campus

Dan Hogan & the Revival of Club Passim

Club Passim is often called a hidden gem—and it’s quite literally hidden. The tiny, dimly lit basement in Harvard Square is tucked away beneath Palmer Street. After descending into the redbrick building, concert-goers are immediately struck by a sense of intimacy. It is only one room and seats no more than 102 people; the stage rises only a foot above the ground floor. Passim’s physical space perfectly reflects the club’s character and mission: to provide the most personal musical experience in town.

When 70-year-old Dan Hogan took over as the Executive Director of Club Passim in 2008, the iconic music venue was on the brink of financial collapse—but Hogan had come prepared. He devised a plan to rescue the organization from bankruptcy, and within two years he and his staff had transformed Club Passim into a growing, community-based music organization.

Hogan is a tall, slender man with bright blue eyes. He is remarkably fit for his age, and bikes to work every day no matter what the conditions. An avid folk music fan and guitar player, he leapt at the opportunity to run Club Passim, a Cambridge mainstay and a celebrated folk music hub for over 50 years. But his excitement quickly turned into concern as the global economy—along with Club Passim’s assets—plummeted.

“That was probably the worst time to take over an organization. The market went really south right after that,” he recalls. The 2008 economic crisis had come after a decade of financial mismanagement at Club Passim, leaving the organization in dire straits.

Surprisingly, Hogan saved the venue from what seemed to be inevitable liquidation. He appealed to creditors and donors to buy time and breathing room, allowing him to get the organization back on track. By May of 2009, Club Passim had spent the entire month “in the black” (making a profit). Under his leadership, the organization continued to achieve this feat every single month for the next two years.

But Hogan was not able to set Club Passim on a path towards long-term financial security without making some very difficult decisions. “I had to let a number of people go and really cut expenses,” he recounts. In total, he cut 23 percent of the operating budget as well as five of the twelve staff members. Although his decisions upset some members of the organization, Hogan believes many understood the realities of the situation. “A lot of those wounds have been healed. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was probably necessary for the survival of the organization.”

Eventually, those painful choices paid off. In just two years, Club Passim had eliminated all of its $89,000 debt in the midst of a major recession. But Hogan was not content with just a financial turnaround; he wanted to reclaim the lauded reputation that the venue had lost after ten years of financial disarray. “We had such a bad record before. I really wanted to establish the fact that we were running a different enterprise,” he explained. “We changed over almost everything.”

Hogan sought to maximize the staff’s efficiency, revamp the organization’s website, streamline ticket sales and significantly increase community outreach. Under his tenure, the Passim School of Music grew from 366 students in 2008 to over 700 in 2013. The school was founded in 2000, offering classes and workshops taught by local musicians who perform at the venue. Meanwhile, the venue itself hosted 455 concerts last year—more than one a day.

Along with his expansion of existing projects, Hogan has brought many fresh ideas to the table. In 2008, due to a large contribution from a donor, Hogan created the Iguana Music Fund, which annually awards grants of $500 to $2,000 dollars to 25 budding musicians in New England. Additionally, Hogan initiated two free, weekly concert series that run throughout every summer in Kendall Square and Harvard Square.

For Hogan, it is this type of outreach to local artists and the Cambridge community that originally drew him to the job. “There is a financial side, but the reason we’re in business is to fulfill our mission,” he explained. “We’re trying to provide exceptional musical experiences, nurture artists at all stages of their development, and build a vibrant musical community.”

Hogan’s efforts have reestablished the success that Club Passim experienced in its heyday from 1958 to 1968. During this golden age, Club Passim—then known as Club 47—attracted some of the era’s most talented musicians who had yet to be discovered. Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan are only a few of the many seminal artists who got their start at the club.

It was this high concentration of talent that drew Hogan to the venue in 1965, while he was a student at Harvard Law School. But marriage and family soon brought Hogan to the Boston suburbs, where he lived for three decades. When he returned to Cambridge in 2000, Hogan reconnected with the organization and eventually joined its board of directors in 2005.

While Hogan might seem like the perfect man for this job, his route to Club Passim was an unconventional one. The All-American golfer and self-taught guitar player graduated from Yale with a degree in philosophy before he received a J.D. from Harvard Law, and a PhD in psychology from Harvard as well. But Hogan’s many Ivy-League honors never led him down a clear-cut path. Tired of law school after two years, he dropped out and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho. When he returned, he worked for a grassroots anti-racism organization called Community Change, before finally finishing his law degree. He eventually worked in management consulting for thirty years. Hogan rejects the idea that he is a Renaissance man. “I’ve just been trying to figure out what I was meant to do in life, and for a variety of reasons that was not easy,” he explains. “I went down a lot of wrong paths.”

Nonetheless, Hogan admits that his diverse background has equipped him with the skills to handle many different situations. Whether he is dealing with a contractual issue or staff communication, Hogan often relies on his training in law, psychology and leadership consulting in his everyday work at Club Passim.

Hogan wants to ensure the long-term success of the organization and potentially oversee a major renovation of the venue to make it handicap-accessible. He is unsure though, whether it will be feasible to accomplish the multi-million dollar project before he leaves within the next few years.

Hogan has revitalized one of the most important folk music venues in America, but he still has one last item on his personal to-do list: “My dream is to play on the stage of Passim,” he says with a smile.

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