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Graceful business moves Featured

10:21am EDT October 31, 2002
A slow economy and reduced box office and playbill advertising sales may have other art organizations in trouble or even closing their doors, but Columbus' BalletMet is still operating in the black, thanks to the focused efforts of executive director Cheri Mitchell and the board of trustees.

Mitchell, 47, took the reins of the $5.4 million operation just over year ago, after serving as director of marketing and communications and interim director of finance and administration. The dance company's artistic director is also new, with less than a year under his belt. Yet despite the changes in top leadership, the organization continues to thrive.

Mitchell says this is largely due to a concentration on fiscal responsibility and diversifying revenue streams. A healthy 60 percent of BalletMet's revenue is earned through ticket sales, playbill advertising sales and its nationally recognized dance academy; the remaining 40 percent is generated by contributions and grants.

According to Mitchell, BalletMet's success is due to a combination of artistic excellence and sound business decisions. SBN sat down with Mitchell to discuss what makes BalletMet work.

Why do you think BalletMet has succeeded while similar organizations are failing?

One of our hallmarks as an institution is that we -- the trustees and staff -- understand the balance between providing high artistic quality and fiscal responsibility. Fiscal stability is a part of our mission statement, along with maintaining the dance company.

The artistic vision of the organization has been key. We are here because we believe in dance and what it can do for our community, but that is balanced with fiscal responsibility. I think we have been very good at tapping into and gaining community involvement and support.

We have three program areas: the dancers, the dance academy and educational programs and outreach, which help us to reach different audiences, and there is overlap and cross-fertilization between them. The ability to have the dance school allows us to be a wider part of the community.

Sixty percent of our revenue is earned through ticket sales and the dance academy, and 40 percent is generated by contributions -- individual and corporate contributions and foundations like the Ohio Arts Council -- and government grants. We probably earn a higher percentage of our revenue than others because of the dance school. We have more than 1,000 students at the school. With the current economy. however, this 60/40 split may need to change.

What are BalletMet's biggest strengths?

The artistic excellence of the dancers and the support of the staff members are our biggest strengths. We offer a diverse repertoire, offering both contemporary and classic ballets.

We also have a strong commitment to new work. We have held 38 world premieres in our history in which we commissioned choreographers to create new work for the company, which is exciting for the dancers. Our community outreach is also a strength. Through the dance academy and educational outreach programs, we work with 45,000 people a year.

And the people who work here are very committed and have helped BalletMet grow and prosper.

What changes have you made operationally to stay within budget?

We do a great deal of long-range strategic planning. Our five-year plan is adjusted by an audit committee on a quarterly basis. As a nonprofit organization, there are times when you don't bring in the revenue you want to.

For example, last year we opened on Sept. 12, and our first two shows of the year didn't go well. We met and discussed what adjustments we could make operationally to save money. We have a new artistic director -- the fourth director we've had in our history -- who started in December 2001.

We work from the fact that artistic vision is critical for our mission and direction, and we knew we needed to look at the transition as a dynamic process. Each artistic director brings his or her own vision and strengths to the company and looks at how we shift or change focus if we need to. But the two of us are working together to achieve the same goal.

Where do you think the operation needs the most improvement, and how do you plan to meet those needs?

The board, staff and dancers all agree that we need to gain more national recognition. We have asked ourselves what we need to do to make that possible. We've talked about strengthening and enhancing our brand image, and are very much involved in defining our specific image and how that will translate into new logos, etc.

We would like to be able to tour nationally -- which we have done some -- as well as some limited international touring. But we are strategically choosing which major cities, festivals, etc., we want to tour in and how we can compete in the national market area. We are looking to improve how we work with presenters across the United States.

Another area we want to focus on is we want to work on deepening the involvement of participants, for audience members and students. And our board of trustees is working to diversify our fund-raising advocacy and strengthening the board.

What is BalletMet's biggest challenge in the next five years?

Our biggest challenge is to focus all of our strengths and to secure a long-term home, whether that is here in our current space or elsewhere downtown. If I had to look down the road, I would say that increasing participation and deepening involvement is also a challenge.

People that become more involved are more likely to support the organization with contributions.

What is your biggest challenge?

I've just been executive director for a year and four months. The first five or six months have been essentially a learning curve. Coordinating and pulling everyone together to be a member of a team is part of the challenge. I feel that the artistic director and I, along with the staff and trustees, will develop this team.

Another challenge is motivating the board to reach the goal of national recognition. To focus, collaborate, pull the team together, including volunteers and people from the community into a collaborative effort is one of my biggest challenges. How to reach: BalletMet Columbus, (614) 229-4860 or www.balletmet.org