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Villella To Step Down from MCB

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It sometimes seems to me that Martins invariably gets clouted with having laid dancers off when Villella gets off with a tap, but it could be me.
Peter Martins does seem to get clouted quite a lot, doesn't he? wink1.gif .

But we on Ballet Alert, at least, were pretty tough on EV when his company of "50 Superhuman Dancers" was slashed to 30-something, some of them just apprentices. At the time most of the official reporting didn't go much deeper than blaming the company's financial difficulties on the economic downturn. And on Harry Madoff. EV's own share in the responsibiility for important spending decisions leading up to the deficit crisis was not stressed. Nor were problems with donor relations.

This does sound like an example of "getting off with a tap," as you say.

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Well very simply before Villella there was no MCB. He was brought in in 1985 to start the company, and there is no denying that he has done great things with it.

There is a new ED, appointed in November of 2011. My understanding is that he reports to the Board, which might be a cause for some friction, particularly given that his predecessor - who was hired by Villella - is still on staff as EVP of Artistic Affairs.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall over at Liberty Avenue . . . .

It's interesting that the Miami Herald article states that MCB's budget for this year is $14.5 million, when its most recent form 990 (for the 2009-10 season) showed its expenditures of $11.8 million. That's a big increase in a two-year period during which the country - not to mention south Florida - has been struggling through one of the worst economies since the 1930s, and it's about $1 million more than the two big deficit seasons of 2007-08 and 2008-09. Could be another big deficit is on the near horizon.

The article included an interesting quote - one that can fairly be read to highlight both sides of this dispute. It reads as follows:

"One of Villella’s supporters on the board said the executive group was letting legitimate practical concerns outweigh questions about the company’s quality and identity. 'They’re worried about the future of the company and Edward’s age,' said the board member, who asked that his name be withheld from publication. 'They are not understanding a true artistic vision... It’s all about the money.'"

Of course, it's about both. Without the money, the vision has no venue. And without the vision, the money is wasted.

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Is the 14.5 for the year of the Paris tour? If so, was the tour subsidized by a special tour campaign, and if so, was that incremental donations or a transfer from general fund money?

Big donors usually want their names associated with a production, special performance, commissions, or at Seattle Opera, a lead singers fund, or, alternately, on a building or part of one, rather than paying for electrical tape, Workers Comp premiums, and toilet paper. It's very possible for a company to look lavish in some respects due to restricted funds, and, at the same time to lay off dancers.

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Martins was making substantially more than his peers, and his wife and son were on payroll at the time as Principals, while dancing less and less, and getting pretty bad reviews when they did dance. That certainly stuck in some members' craw when there were layoffs attributed to financial issues.

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Is the 14.5 for the year of the Paris tour? If so, was the tour subsidized by a special tour campaign, and if so, was that incremental donations or a transfer from general fund money?

The Herald uses the term "currently" for the $14.5 million budget, which could mean anything.

As to Paris: I don't recall an appeal to donors to support this venture. That doesn't mean that there weren't informal appeals to selected donors. Les Etes de la Danse covered an unspecified portion of the cost of the Paris visit. Villella, in at least one pre-performance talk I attended, said that they had "paid for" it and specifically contrasted this with the earlier week at City Center, which was paid for by Miami. (Perhaps that extra million was a factor in the larger -- "current" -- $14.5m figure.????).

"Currently." "Paid for."

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I think it's worth noting that the company has had repeated budget problems, all with Villella at the helm. While its artistic success is undeniable, it seems to lurch from year to year facing budget crisis after budget crisis. And while the 2009 FY showed the expenditures to be closely aligned with receipts, the two years before that showed deficits totaling almost $3.5 million. The Huntington Post article suggests that the deficit demons have returned. With an aging demographic, an aging AD with limited management skills and no apparent succession plan, the board can be forgiven for looking ahead to a change that, while uncertain, may be in the best long-term interests of the company.

In these economic times I think that a lot of arts institutions (like individuals) are having financial difficulties.

Yes it is an aging population but there are always new older people coming, it is Florida after all, and a lot of these people have disposable income. He isn't that old, and a succession plan was discussed.

I'd like evidence that before Villella there were no budget problems. I wouldn't know, because quite frankly before Villella was the company anything more than one of hundreds of regional companies? I don't think so. I certainly never heard about it.

I do think that ballet and opera are more mature tastes. Whether we like to view it this way or not, ballet (and opera) are considered uncool by young kids until they actually see a ballet, for example. Then, they love it. But for some reason it is considered elitist and traditional, everything Americans rebel against. When they get older and realize that "Oops! I Did It Again" by Brittney Spears does not really move you in your 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond, people start to look for artistic music that will move them in a way they never needed before in their lives.

I don't think ballet or opera performances will ever be filled with 20somethings at every performance. I think you might appeal to younger people somewhat when you focus on it really hard and get maybe a handful of younger people to subscribe after a 5 year effort, but overall the vast majority of the audiences that keep coming back are an older age group. But like Aurora pointed out, we all keep getting older, so just because old audiences die out, they are immediately and constantly replaced by other older people.

I can't get anyone my age (45) interested in ballet or opera. I have taken friends here and there from time to time, and they go ONCE and love it, but it is not something they adore and want to see over and over. They go back to wanting to listen to "Oops! I Did It Again!" or watching Kim Kardashian get married. Ballet and opera are simply not "in" or "cool" to most younger people in the U.S.

So instead of the arts companies complaining that the audiences are old and thinking they need to get young audiences, maybe they need to realize that their target audience is the older crowd and thank the gods above for older people instead of always wanting to bring in new people. They need to court the older crowd and make them feel valuable instead of wishing they could find a way to bring in the younger crowd.

I don't think ballet and opera are ever going to appeal to the masses in the U.S. They are always going to be fringe or niche markets that appeal to older people (who tend to be educated, already into the arts, etc).

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From the Miami Herald's review of "Giselle":

"Artistic director Edward Villella, who normally sits in the orchestra section to mix with the ballet company’s patrons on a program’s opening night, instead sat in another area on Friday. Rather like the evening’s heroine, it seems that he feels rejected and disrespected by powerful ballet backers who have pressed for his departure."

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Villella sat with Linda at the "Imperial box". I was seated at his right, in the next box. He barely clapped at all, and by the second act they were gone.

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Well very simply before Villella there was no MCB. He was brought in in 1985 to start the company, and there is no denying that he has done great things with it.

Without the money, the vision has no venue. And without the vision, the money is wasted.

What a great quote! And how true.

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Well very simply before Villella there was no MCB. He was brought in in 1985 to start the company, and there is no denying that he has done great things with it.

Without the money, the vision has no venue. And without the vision, the money is wasted.

What a great quote! And how true.

AND ... a reminder of keep things in balance. So often, when conflicts like this become personalized, policy tends to be seen as a matter of either-or. When you think of it, there's no need for artistic vision and good financial management to be incompatible. I'd hate to see either sacrificed for the sake of power games.

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The Guidestar website now has the MCB form 990 for its fiscal year running from May 2010 through April 2011. It makes for some really interesting reading, particularly when viewed against the context of MCB's location at the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis in one of the worst economies of the past 50 years.

For example:

- Total expenses increased from $11.8 million to $15 million.

- While ballet-related expenses increased from $8.5 million to $11 million (so, by $2.5 million), ballet-related revenues increased from $4.75 million to $5 million (so, only by $250,000). That means there had to be a lot of extra fund-raising.

- Another way of looking at it: the ballet-related deficit (ballet-only expenses over ballet-only revenues) was $3.8 million in 2009-10. It increased to $6 million in 2009-10.

- The school ran a $350k deficit, up from $250k the previous year.

- Villella's salary increased from $321k to $365k; Linda's increased from $62k to $70k; and Crista's increased from $43k to $53k.

- The executive staff all received salary increases.

- The company paid a fundraising consultant $229k, up from $176k the previous year. The consultant raised $862k, up from $791k; but $50,000 of that $70,000 increase went to the consultant's pay increase. I have no idea whether that is a good rate of return (spend $229k to net $633k; or pay a 26.5% commission on the total funds raised of $862k) in the fundraising world, but that net to MCB of $633,000 is a fraction of what the company had to raise in total.

- Fundraising contributions increased from $5.4 million to $8.1 million.

- Over a five-year period, the total of "Gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees received" looks like this: 2006: $5.66 million; 2007: $5.35 million; 2008: $5.69 million; 2009: $5.89 million; and 2010: $8.62 million. It seems unusual that the company would depart so significantly from past years in 2010; that's a 46% increase in a single year. While admirable when viewed as a snapshot, you have to wonder whether the increase was akin to sprinting in the middle of a marathon; while you might gain some ground in the short term, it will leave you lagging in the long run.

- A board member loaned the company $700,000; the loan is unsecured, due on demand, no interest rate, and not reflected in any written agreement.

- At least at that time, Villella appeared to have quite a bit of power. According to the form 990, "The CEO's [Villella is listed as "CEO/Artistic Director"] contract was negotiated by Board President and Chairman with reference to comparable CEO salaries, and ratified by Board. The CEO determines compensation for Executive Director with reference to comparable data." Also, "The Executive Director and General Manager recommend compensation for other key employees with reference to comparable data and submit to CEO for approval. The CEO determines compensation for General Manager with reference to comparable data."

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- Over a five-year period, the total of "Gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees received" looks like this: 2006: $5.66 million; 2007: $5.35 million; 2008: $5.69 million; 2009: $5.89 million; and 2010: $8.62 million. It seems unusual that the company would depart so significantly from past years in 2010; that's a 46% increase in a single year. While admirable when viewed as a snapshot, you have to wonder whether the increase was akin to sprinting in the middle of a marathon; while you might gain some ground in the short term, it will leave you lagging in the long run.

I don't know the specifics of this jump, but in other organizations, such jumps have been caused by the presence of a matching grant, an x-year special foundation grant, a particularly large bequest from someone's (or several people's) will or in honor of someone's wealthy parents a la McCaw Hall in Seattle, a large donation for a new production, an organization realizing that it qualified for a grant that is not specifically arts-related, the appearance of a wealthy patron a la Anne Bass at NYCB and SAB, and/or a shift in the board. It would be odd to be part of a change in accounting method or an endowment liquidation, which would have to be disclosed on the financial statements.

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Good insights, Helene - I did some digging and found this Palm Beach Post article from 2010 that discusses a number of the exact points you raised in the context of the MCB's 2010-11 season! In particular, a reinvigorated board, underwritten premieres, and a nice big challenge grant.

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Thank you so much, checkwriter, for your research. I believe that the Knight Foundation challenge grant for the return of live music played a significant part in increased budgeting starting in 2010. However, your data confirm Jan Sjostrom's characterization of MCB as "a company with a history of living beyond its means."

One of the things that always amazes me when companies like MCB hit economic hard times is the way that this ALWAYS increases the size and budget of the development staff and consultants for fund-raising.This is an understandable response to a budget gap, but one which inevitably leaves the company saddled with even larger expenses, often for the long term.

A small clarification. This article actually appeared in the Palm Beach Daily News, a.k.a. the "shiny sheet," a small-circulation newspaper catering to the residents of the island of Palm Beach. I do not recall seeing it in the Palm Beach Post, based in West Palm Beach, which has a large readership throughout Palm Beach County and beyond. The Post owns the shiny sheet, which has its own editorial content, including reviews and arts coverage, and of course a wealth of coverage (with numerous photos) of what the socialites are doing.

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What seems strange to me is that Villella is taking the fall for this... it's not like he just came on board and pushed this budget on the company...

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With regard to the size of the development staff, I counted names in the program recently and found one development-department name for every three dancers. I don't know, but I wonder whether this is a low ratio.

But I do want to thank checkwriter and Helene for the depth of the discussion here. Plausible speculation is one thing, but facts are what count.

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Yes, I totally agree, thank you for hunting down all the info!

If development people bring in more money than the cost of their salary, it would seem the salary is insignificant, until all sources of funding have been tapped, and the limits reached....?

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What seems strange to me is that Villella is taking the fall for this... it's not like he just came on board and pushed this budget on the company...

Well at the time he held the title of "Founding Artistic Director/Chief Executive Officer" (this according to the Internet Archive's various captures of the administration screen from the MCB website during the 2010-2011 time period). He is now listed only as "Founding Artistic Director." I don't know that he's 'taking the fall' so much as sharing the responsibility consistent with his leadership position. There's no doubt that artistically the company is in great shape. But you have to keep the lights on or nobody's going to see all that talent.

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For a while it was the rage to pay development people a percentage of the money they brought in. I'm not sure whether the pendulum or the percentages have shifted, but 25% doesn't seem out of line.

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a percentage of the money they brought in

Logical to have lots of them if they more than pay for their presence, as Amy suggests, but how can anyone tell what each brings in?

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I just saw this article in the Miami Herald:

"An MCB spokesperson confirmed that [Jennifer] Kronenberg and [Lourdes] Lopez were the final candidates but said the troupe would not comment."

http://www.miamihera...to-replace.html

According to the article Kronenberg is Villella's choice.

Unlike at PNB, which publicized its five finalists, this news appears to have been leaked. It could be awkward to be known as the runner-up for a top position.

Has there ever been a woman who hasn't been a founder or co-founder and who was chosen to run a major US ballet company? Karen Kain is AD of National Ballet of Canada. If Lopez is chosen, I think she'd be the first to not have had a career with the company in question.

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Has there ever been a woman who hasn't been a founder or co-founder and who was chosen to run a major US ballet company? Karen Kain is AD of National Ballet of Canada. If Lopez is chosen, I think she'd be the first to not have had a career with the company in question.

If I remember correctly Violette Verdy directed the Boston Ballet for a short period of time not long after her retirement.

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a percentage of the money they brought in

Logical to have lots of them if they more than pay for their presence, as Amy suggests, but how can anyone tell what each brings in?

These kind of specialists will bring contacts and techniques with them that the company likely has not been using -- it's not an exact science, but you can usually identify specific grants or other gifts that are the direct result of a particular person or campaign.

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Unlike at PNB, which publicized its five finalists, this news appears to have been leaked. It could be awkward to be known as the runner-up for a top position.

And there was considerable controversy about making that short list visible at the time, for that reason.

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These kind of specialists will bring contacts and techniques with them that the company likely has not been using -- it's not an exact science, but you can usually identify specific grants or other gifts that are the direct result of a particular person or campaign.

Even the most rudimentary tracking for grants list the applications, who worked on them, what was given in the past, if anything, and the result. For mailings and direct appeals, organizations can track which offer working to which segment.

The trickier ones come from large personal and non-foundation corporate donations, since it can take years to cultivate the right connection and network, and there can be unacknowledged groundwork or the right set of circumstances that aren't person-specific or replicable.

Has there ever been a woman who hasn't been a founder or co-founder and who was chosen to run a major US ballet company? Karen Kain is AD of National Ballet of Canada. If Lopez is chosen, I think she'd be the first to not have had a career with the company in question.

If I remember correctly Violette Verdy directed the Boston Ballet for a short period of time not long after her retirement.

Yes, she was. Thank you!

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