One of the stops on my Arts in Crisis tour that I looked forward to most was the visit to Kansas City, Missouri. Twenty four years ago I started my arts management career in Kansas City, running the Kansas City Ballet. Going back to the Lyric Theatre, where the Ballet gave many memorable performances, was a true homecoming.
The visit did not disappoint. Approximately 750 people showed up for my session, far more than in any other city. The session began with the entire Kansas City Symphony performing the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms. This was the first time a musical ensemble performed before my session and it set the perfect tone. (This piece is special to me since it was written for the German town of Breslau, now part of Poland, where my father was born and raised.) Michael Stern, the dynamic music director of the Symphony conducted the orchestra and my interview.
Sitting on the stage of the Lyric Theater, I could not help but remember the first years of my career, both the successes and the failures. The very first performances during my tenure were a disaster. I had wasted the entire marketing budget on a clever idea that we could not implement well. We sold fewer tickets to those performances than to any other in the history of the company. It was not an auspicious debut but it taught me so much about the scale required for a strong marketing effort.
For our next set of performances, we built a relationship with the Girl Scouts who purchased thousands of tickets; these sales resulted in the first sell out performances in our history. Some of my board members, who were used to buying tickets minutes before a performance, were both thrilled and annoyed that they simply could not buy a ticket to the final performance!
And by the end of that season, we had a new relationship with Alvin Ailey that allowed us to perform many of his works to great acclaim. The artistic growth of the company was due entirely to the good taste of Todd Bolender, our Artistic Director. His vision, complemented by a strong institutional marketing drive, allowed the company to thrive.
The Kansas City Ballet is a classic example of an art-focused turnaround. Without Todd's strong repertory choices, his able support team of ballet mistress Una Kai and school director Diana Adams, and the guest artists he attracted to set ballets and teach (John Taras, Violette Verdy and Melissa Hayden my first year alone), the company could not have attracted the press attention nor negotiated a debut tour to New York City that were so central to our success.
The substantial community of arts sponsors came to think of the company differently. I joke that the tag line for the company when I arrived was 'the ballet company that can't make payroll." And it was true. Every two weeks we called around town to see who could contribute something so we could pay the dancers their meager wages. After the artistic and marketing successes of our first season, the community came to think of the Kansas City Ballet as the 'hot organization' in the city. Not surprisingly, we were able to increase our fund-raising and ticket revenue substantially and pay off our entire accumulated deficit in one season.
What is important about this story is that the staff of the Kansas City Ballet was very small -- only four full-time people on the administrative team. It does not take a large organization to develop important art nor to create a stronger marketing profile.
The lessons I learned in Kansas City paved the way for the remainder of my career. Sitting on the Lyric Theater stage, surrounded by so many friends and colleagues, board members and donors, I felt a tremendous surge of gratitude.