Miami City Ballet continues revival by naming new executive director

After months of tension and turmoil, Miami City Ballet has ‘turned a corner,’ bringing in a new executive director and a top fundraiser — and a multimillion-dollar cash injection.

09/25/2012 5:36 PM

09/26/2012 12:11 AM

After a tough year, Miami City Ballet is suddenly coming back strong. First, the troupe announced $3 million in new donations, a lifesaving influx of nearly a quarter of its $13 million budget. And Tuesday, MCB announced the hiring of a top fundraiser at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington as executive director.

“It’s not that there are no financial issues, but we have really turned a corner,” said arts-institution turnaround expert and Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, who has been consulting with MCB since July. “We are heading into a very good time.”

Kaiser, who engineered rescues of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theater and England’s Royal Opera House, said the moves ensure the company will recover from the most difficult period in its 26-year history.

The new executive director is Daniel Hagerty, 40, who as director of individual campaigns at the Kennedy Center heads a staff of 25 that raised $40 million last year. Kaiser introduced him to leaders of MCB’s board a month ago.

Hagerty, who starts in late October, said Tuesday he is thrilled at the prospect of working with new artistic director Lourdes Lopez — who took control this month.

“It’s intimidating, but when opportunities like this come along you can’t say no,” Hagerty said. “To me what’s most exciting is knowing Lourdes has plans in mind for the company that are really going to take it to the next level, [and] to be a part of that process, part of a team with Lourdes and the board. They’ve had 26 years of amazing performances, and now they’re starting down the road of the next 25.”

The positive news comes after months of rancor and fiscal and organizational turmoil related to the ouster of founding artistic director Edward Villella, who stepped down Sept. 4. The legendary former star dancer, who built MCB into one of the top ballet companies in the United States, had been pressured to leave by members of the ballet’s executive board and some major donors, according to MCB board members, supporters and staff.

Tension over Villella’s departure increased the troupe’s already considerable financial woes: By this summer, it had an operating deficit of almost $3 million, and owed an equal amount. When executive director Nicholas Goldsborough was fired in June after just seven months on the job, the leadership vacuum gutted staff morale and caused some to question the company’s future.

The new donations, all pledged since the beginning of August, showed renewed confidence in the company, Kaiser said. They included one gift of at least $1 million and another of at least $500,000, most from people who had given before. What’s more, $1 million of the troupe’s accumulated debt of $3 million has now been forgiven.

“You have to go to your best friends first,” Kaiser said. “A lot of our best friends are excited about what we’re going to be doing going forward, and people are getting optimistic again.

“When you stop pointing fingers at people and start talking about the excitement of an organization, that’s when people are happy to give.”

Board member and donor Toby Ansin, who launched MCB with Villella in 1986, said supporters are focused on the future. “People really want Miami City Ballet to thrive, and they’re putting their money where their mouth is,” Ansin said. “They’ve invested so much in this company, and now they feel confident it’s on the right track.”

Kaiser is known for a theory that arts institutions succeed by focusing on high quality art and programming, and then on building excitement and support for that artistic work among audiences, big and small donors, and the broader community — a network he calls “the family.” Unlike many whose first response to financial shortfalls is to reduce programming and staff, Kaiser says cutbacks lead to a downward spiral of shrinking audiences, interest and donations.

“You don’t get healthy by getting smaller and smaller,” Kaiser said “You get healthy by getting people excited about your organization and by building what I call the family … When they are a happy, growing, engaged group they produce revenue, and when we put that revenue into more great art and education the family gets bigger and happier.”

MCB’s dancing and artistry under Villella was widely praised, but Kaiser says the troupe’s problems stemmed largely from not having a strong executive director to align artistic ambitions with concerns from board members and donors, as well as insufficient marketing and fundraising.

MCB’s board leadership has tended to respond to semi-regular financial crises with cutbacks. Among the criticisms aimed at Villella, particularly in the past year, were that he was unwilling to reduce spending, and that he was prickly if he believed board members intruded on artistic decision-making

Kaiser, who has presented MCB several times at the Kennedy Center and calls Villella a friend, says such clashes undermined the troupe’s achievements. “There was not the kind of expertise to turn the wonderful dancing, the exciting moments … into more ticket sales and more contributors,” he said.

By year’s end, Kaiser is to give the company a reorganization plan that will include beefed-up fundraising and marketing departments. Among the steps the troupe has taken to right itself are adding new board members from Palm Beach, a little-tapped but potentially fertile source of supporters, and one where Hagerty has connections to Kennedy Center donors. Lopez’s plans include a festival celebrating the work of George Balanchine and a multi-disciplinary event with other South Florida arts groups, as well as new ballets from contemporary choreographers.

Kaiser said he was confident that the troupe, if managed right, could grow along with an increasingly vital cultural scene.

“Miami’s arts institutions are very small, given the wealth and size of this community,” he said.

“I think that’s a historical issue, and it’s going to change.”

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