With a new five-year plan in hand, Pennsylvania Ballet is taking a great leap forward.
A decade of flat ticket revenues, chronic funding challenges, and a certain lack of artistic sparkle prompted the ballet to engage Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, who has been at work on the plan since May. The widely respected arts manager has responded with a blueprint calling for new artistic projects, partnerships with local and national arts groups, an expanded school for aspiring professionals and others, a reinvigorated board, smarter marketing - and an additional $1.7 million in each of the next five years to pay for it all.
Executive director Michael Scolamiero, who brought in Kaiser, says the aim is nothing less than bringing the ballet "back to the top ranks of American ballet companies."
Kaiser's services are being provided through the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. He has a reputation as a turnaround agent, but one whose philosophy runs counter to the typical response by arts boards to cut the budget when income falls short.
"You don't get healthy by shrinking," said Kaiser (who is no relation to Pennsylvania Ballet artistic chief Roy Kaiser). "This is not a shrinking plan. It starts with the art. I said to them, 'Think big.' "
Big means commissions, creating new full-length ballets, and collaborations with other groups. Pennsylvania Ballet has solid credentials as a Balanchine company, but some works by the master require more than the 40 dancers on the roster. Could the company borrow dancers from another Balanchine troupe - say, Miami City Ballet - to do these larger works? The idea is being explored. Unusual and outdoor venues are being investigated, as well as a suburban school to complement the one the ballet recently opened on North Broad Street, a few blocks from City Hall.
A $1 million challenge grant will inaugurate the process of ramping up support for the company, which dances its 50th season this fall. Four trustees have offered a total of $1 million if $3 million more can be raised. The full amount needed to boost its ambition is relatively modest, Kaiser says - $8.5 million over five years.
The ballet will look beyond the city limits for support. Touring regionally and nationally will be developed (the company once toured widely), as well as a regular "second-city" presence. New board members from outside Philadelphia are sought. This kind of expanded footprint could open up new sources of philanthropy, leaders believe.
The current fund-raising campaign to complete the Louise Reed Center for Dance on North Broad Street, which includes the school, will be put on hold for a year, Scolamiero said. Among other matters, the ballet must decide how to develop the rest of the property there. Some combination of residential and a restaurant is likely.
The Kaiser plan, recently reviewed and approved by the Pennsylvania Ballet board, took a critical look at many of the group's current and past business practices. Kaiser met with staff, board, and donors, and determined that the ballet had suffered from weak marketing and ticket sales; an inadequate major-donor program; a board that was engaged "but without many potent community leaders, corporate leaders, or philanthropists"; a middling national reputation; and, over the last decade or more, few "transformational" artistic projects.
"Not surprisingly, fund-raising has diminished," the report says. After peaking in the mid-2000s, largely through a bequest from the estate of late board chairman Edwin E. Tuttle, contributed income is lower than it was in 2004. Ticket sales in 2012 were slightly lower than they were a decade ago.
This despite the fact that Pennsylvania Ballet's marketing budget is higher than those at the nation's largest ballet companies. The amount spent on advertising and marketing per dollar earned at Pennsylvania Ballet is 32 cents, versus 14 cents for New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, 20 cents for American Ballet Theatre, 18 cents for Boston Ballet, and 12 cents for Joffrey Ballet. Only Houston Ballet, 33 cents, matched or exceeded Pennsylvania Ballet, according to the data.
Marketing is weak, the report concludes, because artistic plans aren't formulated far enough in advance; because of "poor graphic design" that is "dated and unimaginative"; and the fact that the company has not capitalized on a personification around whom promotion can be developed. The ballet has had three marketing directors in five years, it noted.
The report places blame for some of the organizational weakness at the feet of the board. Many board members are not actively engaged in fund-raising, and most, but not all, observe their own minimum giving requirements.
Kaiser says he was surprised that The Nutcracker was not offered as part of the rest of the subscription package for the year, which has meant ticket sales for the cash cow have to start from scratch each season and require higher marketing costs than might be necessary. The holiday favorite will be part of subscription offerings starting in the 2014-15 season, Scolamiero said.
Under the new plan, the annual budget would grow from today's $10 million to $13.8 million in 2018. If the company succeeds in executing more ambitious projects, reinvigorating the board, and stirring the kind of support it needs, at the end of it "you'll see a very different organization," Kaiser says.