David Brown: Danseur Noble, Administrator Extraordinaire

Brown Receives Dance/USA’s Ernie Award in June

By Gigi Berardi

Walking into The Francia Russell Center in Bellevue, Washington, one is struck by the sunlit corridors and studio spaces, tasteful wood accents, and expanse of glass. Pacific Northwest Ballet Executive Director David Brown oversaw every detail of its construction. Brown, who steps down in June after 14 years in the position, considers such facilities to be his legacy to the company. Others give him credit for much, much more in his illustrious career in Seattle.

David Brown“[Brown] is in a world of very few executive directors of companies this size, especially given his skills, capabilities, and longevity in the profession,” says Aya Hamilton, PNB board chair. “He’s led the organization through exhilarating times as with the opening of [the Marion Oliver] McCaw Hall, but also through exceptionally difficult fiscal decision-making. Some directors don’t know what’s intellectually right for the organization – he does.”

Still, David Brown says: “The most satisfying things in dance for me have been less about what happens on stage and more about the support activities that make it all possible.” for Brown, “the most satisfying things in dance for me have been less
about what happens on stage and more about the support activities that
make it all possible.” Brown is referring not only to his overseeing of building projects at PNB, but also those in Boston during his post-dancing 20-year tenure with the Boston Ballet, as production manager, general manager, and executive following a career as a principal with the company.

“David [Brown] has helped to create great stability for this company in so many ways,” says incoming PNB Executive Director Ellen Walker. “He’s helped to make a safe and comfortable place for our artists to work. He’s been fair and transparent with every department in the organization. Plus, people don’t realize how great he’s been for the industry and field as a whole – which is why he’s being honored at Dance/USA. He’s had a long career in dance and understands it from every point of view – as a dancer, as someone on the technical side of production, and as an expert strategist and financial planner.”

All of what Brown has done and is able to do has not been lost on the large service organization he has been deeply involved with since its inception. At the annual conference this year, Brown will receive Dance/USA’s Ernie Award (named for Ian “Ernie” Horvath). The award is given to an individual working “behind the scenes” in the dance field to empower artists. Such an accolade could not be more apropos. Brown has worked successfully behind the scenes all his professional life, beginning with his post-dancing career at Boston Ballet, and continuing through to his early involvement in Dance/USA (with the late Horvath), and now to the day-to-day operation of PNB.

“This is a position in which the most meaningful work is done out of the limelight,” says Walker. “As executive director, [Brown]’s always kept the ship on course. He unfailingly has had the best interests of the organization in mind, and his long-term work developing a healthy and sustainable financial model is something many other companies have long admired.”

It was 35 years ago that dance aficionados looked up to Brown, not as a creator of successful business models for ballet, or as a champion of arts in the community, but as their danseur noble, the steady and gracious life- and ballet-partner of former PNB faculty member Elaine Bauer. Together, they formed an elegant and classy couple. When dancing together, Brown made sure the attention shone on Bauer, as he’s done for all the dancers he’s partnered, artistic directors he’s worked with, and PNB department heads he’s supervised. And, although he yields center stage to others, Brown does everything possible to make sure that every performance is spot on, artistically and financially.

Brown seems to have “the right level of wisdom, experience, and sense of compromise,” notes PNB artistic director Peter Boal. “The art just doesn’t happen unless the climate is in place. David ensures that we can do all that we aspire to, and he ensures it in a very quiet but authoritative way.”

Since Brown joined PNB in 2000, Boal notes that the organization has seen tremendous growth and stability, including mounting four new full-length productions, and, in what might have been the greatest challenge according to Boal, “seeing us through the recession, helping us land on our feet, and thrive.”

“Ultimately, there’s no one else to deal with all the issues and all the details,” says Brown. “When there’s no one else, I go to where the need is, where the fires are.” And needs and fires there have been aplenty.

For example, PNB was well along in its transformation of what was known as the Seattle Opera House into McCaw Hall, when Brown joined the organization as executive director in May of 2000. “Working on a state-of-the-art theater was always something I had hoped to do.” Brown also was instrumental in relocating PNB’s Eastside (Bellevue) site for the school, which led to the transformation of a vacant Gold’s Gym into bright studio spaces. Brown also worked to build a supportive arts community there. The building is facing yet another possible relocation. The construction of the Seattle Sound Transit/East Link light rail system will go through the Eastside school, involving another relocation, which is currently in process.
For the McCaw Hall transformation, Brown was instrumental in facilitating communication among the three interested arts organizations, the Seattle Opera, Seattle Center Foundation, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. The Opera House was the home for three organizations at the time — the opera, the Seattle Symphony, and the ballet — and inevitable scheduling clashes and tensions among the major groups occurred. The symphony’s move to its own home, Benaroya Hall, greatly helped to relieve that tension and set the stage for the McCaw Hall renovation. By all accounts, Brown worked diplomatically with the sometimes-conflicting interests and goals of the arts groups.

Bruce Wells, formerly a principal dancer (at one time he shared a dressing room with Brown), resident choreographer, and company teacher for Boston Ballet and now a long-time teacher and coach at PNB, says, “The Opera House was never well designed, acoustically, so the move for the symphony made sense.” For the ballet, sharing the space had always meant that The Nutcracker run was compromised. “What the company needed was six weeks in November and December to run this bread-and-butter ballet. With the symphony’s move to Benaroya, and the trimming down of the numbers of resident arts organizations, PNB had a more favorable schedule. It took David [Brown] to get all the arts organizations talking to each other; he was a great senator.”

Audience diversity and numbers also have been a concern, along with customer service and audience education. “We’ve worked hard on audience acceptance of cutting-edge contemporary works.” Adds Brown: “We also needed to make investments in technology – in our website, in social media networking, and in customer convenience. We needed to make it easier to be here as an audience member.”

Adds Ellen Walker, “[Brown] has supported us in pursuing grants and research on audience behavior, especially with younger audiences, in the 13-35 age group. We’ve now grown that audience by over 50 percent in five years. Throughout it all, he’s had a wonderfully broad perspective on where we should be putting our resources to get there – and the results have been excellent.”

Providing stability during artistic directorship transitions is  something Brown sees as an integral part of his job. Providing stability during artistic directorship transitions is also something Brown sees as part of his job. Brown has worked with many artistic directors, and with some very challenging transitions. During his time at Boston Ballet he worked with E. Virginia Williams (the company’s founder), Violette Verdy, Bruce Marks, and Anna-Marie Holmes, and at PNB, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, and now Peter Boal. “The most successful executive directors have not required the spotlight,” says Brown. “Wanting the spotlight is what some people need. I, for instance, don’t, but I need to support those that do.”

Offering the spotlight during successes is one thing, making difficult and unpopular decisions during a downturn in the economy is another. For example, Brown is firm and decisive when it comes to financial matters. Says Peter Boal, “[Brown’s] utterly steady during difficult fiscal times.” Boal considers his relationship with Brown to be extremely positive, “I came in not knowing much about how an organization like PNB runs. I depended then as now on him for so much. He’s a primary participant in union negotiations, he’s a top-notch strategic planner, and he’s an excellent budget manager.”

Brown indeed understands the numbers and what they mean for an arts organization, but also “the art form in general,” says Boal. Plus, he is committed to transparency and keeping the artists, staff, public, and board informed. Likewise, he, too, wants to be and stay informed.

“I like to tell staff, ‘If there’s a problem, don’t try to hide it hoping you can solve it yourself,’” says Brown. “The more time we have to find a solution, the greater the likelihood that we can solve it together. It’s important that people let me know soon if there’s a problem they cannot solve.”

Brown has a favorite quote from President Teddy Roosevelt that he likes to use, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are – this has resonance for dance companies,” says Brown. “I emphasize the do: Do what you can and don’t complain about what you don’t have or what you could do with more resources if you were somewhere else. If something’s needed, I try to find the resources. I also hire good people and then get out of their way. If you hire good people, they will make good decisions and be passionate about what they do.”

And if lucky, they’ll also have a good sense of humor, a personality trait that Brown himself cultivates. “It’s too hard to do this without a sense of humor.” On the other hand, “you can’t be everyone’s friend, certainly not with people you work with. Still, you can maintain a sense of humor.”

Bruce Wells attributes much of Brown’s success to knowing exactly what he can change, and what he can’t. “He’s a real Midwesterner,” says Wells, “he’s salt of the earth, he’s meat and potatoes. He can do anything, but he also knows his limits.” Brown understands not to invest any energy into any activity, which is beyond his control. “That’s the kind of man he was also in Boston — when he could make a change, he was 110 percent focused, putting his energy where he could to make an important contribution.”

Much of that energy, more recently, has been focused on “keeping the ship on course” fiscally. “He’s always owned difficult budget decisions,” says Walker, “ultimately he takes responsibility for them and carries around the message to all of us, personally. He’s a great role model for showing us how best to proceed in order to produce great work, keep staff engaged, and take care of our patrons.”

Even though Brown recognizes that the recession has been extremely difficult for arts organizations, yet he chooses to remain optimistic, and has nevertheless stayed the course. Brown chooses to remain optimistic, he recognizes that the recession has
been extremely difficult for arts organizations. Brown has nevertheless
stayed the course. As things got better two to three years into the recession, “[Brown] made every effort to give back to those who had supported the arts during difficult times,” says Wells. Throughout all, Brown was completely transparent in the decision-making process.

Tending to those who support the arts also is a priority for Brown, “Arts organizations are not just about getting a check from a supporter,” he says. “Trustees, volunteers, audience members all need to experience the behind-the-scenes part of ballet. Committees need to have meaningful activities. Board members need to be fully engaged. We need to connect with donors with different levels of activity, even if it’s just a casual conversation with someone in the donor lounge.”

Walker believes that David Brown has cultivated all the right values in promoting arts in the community. It’s one of his main achievements. He’s a very strong voice for the State Arts Commission, and has always been an advocate for the arts in Seattle. One of the projects close to his heart is the Cultural Access Washington legislation – a fund designed to gather political and public support for funding mechanisms for cultural, science, and heritage organizations in the state. Brown believes in organizations, and organizing.

Early on, in Boston, he encouraged other executive directors to gather together to share information about artist, staff, and administrative salaries. Such information, according to Wells, “became very important in negotiations for the unions to create a realistic lifestyle for dancers in this country.” Today, Brown continues to mentor executive directors. “His is the voice of experience,” says Boal, “and the mentoring process is also a big part of what Dance/USA does – he has benefited from it and has given back to it.”

After his retirement from PNB in June, Brown plans to take a break for three months or so. “When I moved to PNB in 2000, I thought if I’m successful here, then this could be my last job.” For Brown: “Next month, I will have been here 14 years, and that’s quite enough.”

It would seem that Brown’s entire career has been that of a quiet, stable cavalier supporting others – the choreography, the company – to the best of his ability. Today, David Brown remains that steadfast danseur noble creating healthy cultural ecosystems in dance wherever he goes.

Gigi BerardiGigi Berardi has written more than 200 features for publications such as Dance Magazine, Dance International, the Los Angeles Times, the Anchorage Daily News, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald, LA Style, IDEA Today, LA Reader, and LA Weekly, as well as scientific journals such as Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, Kinesiology and Medicine for Dance, Dance Research Journal, Your Patient and Fitness, and Impulse: The International Journal of Dance Science, Education, and Medicine. She has written as a national advocacy columnist for the Dance Critics Association. She is a founding co-editor of Kinesiology and Medicine for Dance and currently serves as assistant editor for Journal of Dance Medicine & Science. Her public radio features (for KSKA, Anchorage) have been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Dance Critics Association, and is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Her book, Finding Balance: Fitness, Training, and Health for a Lifetime in Dance is in its second printing. A revised version in 2005 featured dancers from Pacific Northwest Ballet. Her most recent book project is A Cultivated Life.


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