On Legacy Keeping and Leading from Within
Editor’s note: With this interview, From the Green Room inaugurates a new monthly feature, Leadership Corner, which will disseminate the voices of leaders in the professional dance field across the United States. Comments or discussion can be posted on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/DanceUSAorg.
Katherine Brown is executive director of New York City Ballet, and in that capacity oversees the management and administrative functions of the ballet and the David H. Koch Theater and manages a budget of approximately $77 million. Before assuming her position at NYCB, Brown was chief operating officer of WNYC Radio. In that capacity, she oversaw all non-programming areas of the nation’s largest public radio station, including development, finance, marketing/public relations, digital operations, legal, engineering, human resources, and administration, managing an annual budget of approximately $40 million and a non-programming staff of approximately 100.
Brown served in various capacities at Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) from 1997-2007. As executive director from 2005 to 2007, she was responsible for management oversight of the organization’s operations, including JALC year-round concert, touring, media, and educational activities and the operations of Frederick P. Rose Hall. She managed an annual budget of $38 million and oversaw a full-time staff of approximately 125. As director, then vice president, for development from 1997-2004, she led a capital campaign raising $132 million to design and construct JALC’s new home, Frederick P. Rose Hall, and annual contributed income increased under her leadership from $3 million to $12.5 million.
From 1993 to 1997, Brown served as a manager of major gifts for The New York Public Library, where she directed the major gifts portion of a $700 million capital campaign, including contributions through such programs as patrons, major gifts, and planned giving. From 1988 to 1993, she worked as the director of individual giving for New York City Ballet. From 1976 to 1987, she served in various capacities at the National Endowment for the Arts, including as the acting director of the Dance Program. A member of the Board of Trustees of Dance/USA, she serves as chair of its Managers Council made up of the country’s largest dance companies.
Brown has a BA in music from Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va.
Dance/USA: Did you have early dance experiences? Were you a “ballet girl”?
Katherine Brown: I took ballet as a very young girl just for a brief period of time. Then I got into other pursuits that are related in an athletic way, but not dance. I was a competitive gymnast and a competitive diver in my teens and early twenties.
I got interested in dance again when I went to college where there was a really good dance department. I didn’t get into it seriously, but took a few dance classes with Helen McGehee, former Martha Graham dancer, who was head of the dance department at the time, and I learned a lot. That was it until I kind of fell into it professionally.
D/USA: Thinking back on your physical activities in your youth, are there any ideas or elements from your training in gymnastics and diving that you bring into your work today as leader of a major ballet company?
KB: I think the discipline and control involved in any endeavor like that is great training that you can draw on in professional situations for the rest of your life.
D/USA: You manage the largest non-profit dance organization in the country. What is it that gets you up in the morning, gets you going and gets you into your day? Professionally and personally, if you want to share.
KB: I live very close to Central Park, so I usually start off the day with a run in the park. It’s a great way to clear my head and get going. I always feel like once I’ve done that I can at least say, okay, I’ve accomplished something today. Sometimes the rest of the day is not always under my control, but that I usually can control.
I think what’s most inspiring about being here is that this company is just so extraordinary. We have some of the best dancers in the world; some of the most important ballet repertoire and artistic content in the world, including at the core our repertoire of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. We dance in one of the most beautiful theaters in the world and we have a fantastic orchestra. So when you have all of those pieces, it’s a brilliant place to start.
D/USA: Your administrative staff probably has as many people as in the professional company, about 100 dancers. Since most leadership is about managing people, what advice can you give to those who want to become good managers?
KB: I would encourage them to get as much experience in as many aspects of an organization’s operations as possible. For example, in our business fundraising skill is really important because every organization in the non-profit world relies on it. Fundraising is one of those things that if you ask people how they got into it, most will tell you it was by accident. It’s not necessarily something that people think about becoming when they’re a kid: I want to be a doctor, I want to be a lawyer. I want to be a fundraiser? Not really. But it’s actually such an interesting profession because it draws on interpersonal skills, relationship building, diplomacy, sales, long-term strategic thinking, planning and management. There are just so many different aspects to development, but I don’t think people always understand that before they become involved in it, and they are often intimidated by it. Before I got into it, I thought it was picking up the phone and making cold calls and asking for money. But that pretty much doesn’t go on, except perhaps with some telemarketing.
Fundraising is about building relationships and thinking strategically about an organization’s needs. How you match up philanthropists with their interests. Fundraising is about building relationships and thinking strategically about an organization’s needs. How you match up philanthropists with their interests. I always encourage people to think about [fundraising] because it really is so important and it is actually an interesting facet of working in the arts.
D/USA: Someone once told me that development and fundraising is really about storytelling.
KB: Yes. That’s true. It’s really important to be able to communicate the operation’s mission and goals in a compelling way, and in a way that intersects with a donor or potential donor’s interests. When you’re dealing with people who are making contributions to organizations they care about, it’s one of the most important and meaningful things that they’re doing. So actually being able to help facilitate that and be a part of it is really a privilege.
D/USA: What percentage of your time is spent on fundraising and development versus the day-to-day management of people, staff and dancers, general operating, and planning for the future?
KB: That’s a really good question because it’s something I think about a lot in terms of how I’m spending my time and serving the needs of the organization. I would say that a third of my time I’m dealing with fundraising-related activities whether its communicating with our board, participating in fundraising events, interacting with donors, meeting prospective donors, or strategic planning around fundraising and our current capital campaign.
D/USA: And you have a full-scale development department to work with you on these matters.
KB: That’s right. We have a great team of just over 20 people who focus on fundraising, and they have a particularly challenging job as in the past year we’ve actually added on another aspect to the organization. The New York City Opera had fallen on hard financial times and left Lincoln Center about three years ago, so we took on the management and expenses of the theater in addition to the ballet. That really expanded all the work of our development department and entire administrative staff.
D/USA: How large is your management team?
KB: Our senior management team is made up of the leaders of each of the major departments: fundraising, PR, marketing, finance, operations, etc. There are eight people in that group.
D/USA: What’s your advice when working day to day and you face conflicts with staff? How do you resolve them?
KB: It depends on the issue. What works for me is to really be in a situation that is collaborative. You have as many heads as possible bring their creativity, their intelligence, and their expertise to the table. I find what is most effective is to work through things that way and come to a resolution collaboratively.
Related to that is how you think about hiring and what kinds of skills and what kinds of dispositions you’re looking for when you hire. An ability to collaborate is important to me. I’m interested in someone who can function as a team player and who can see the bigger picture. There are a lot of brilliant people who are highly skilled but are not able to work that way. For me that’s what works best.
D/USA: What was the first thing you did in your position as executive director at City Ballet?
KB: Before I arrived, the organization had been through a two-year strategic planning process to come up with a way to address trends that were not moving in the right direction: ticket sales were eroding, expenses, while not crazy, were increasing, and the fundraising was not really keeping up. It was easy to see where things would be headed without some dramatic intervention. One of the conclusions that came out of the process was to change the organizational structure by creating a position of executive director that would work in partnership with the artistic director, both reporting to the board.
I was brought on to fill this role. The mandate I had coming in was to take the information and observations revealed in the plan, and develop and execute strategies to address the company’s issues. Fortunately, my partner in this is Peter Martins, who oversees the artistic side and I oversee the management side. He is a fantastic partner; he has a collaborative style also. We have looked seriously at every aspect of our operations to see what changes we can make to improve things, not an easy task especially in an organization that has been around for many, many years. There’s a lot of tradition here, so change can be difficult and uncomfortable. We have looked seriously at every aspect of our operations to see what changes we can make to improve things, not an easy task especially in an organization that has been around for many, many years. There’s a lot of tradition here, so change can be difficult and uncomfortable. Peter has really been very open to all of it and he absolutely recognized the problems and understands the seriousness of the undertaking.
D/USA: One structure unique in the arts organizations is the dual directorship: an artistic and an executive director. In working with an artistic partner is your job to always say yes to benefit the art, or might there be times when you need to say no?
KB: I think our work is really about the art first and foremost, but there always has to be a true partnership between the artistic and management teams. Everyone is working toward the same goals and we really have to be careful that whatever we’re doing, we’re still honoring the art and maintaining the institution’s integrity. There are certainly many things that can be changed or instituted that don’t affect the artistic product that have a positive impact in other areas of the organization. Working in tandem and establishing the appropriate balance is very important.
D/USA: How often are you in touch with Peter: daily or multiple times daily?
KB: It depends on the day. We definitely are back and forth quite a bit on most days about all sorts of things.
That relationship between the artistic and the management sides is critical in any arts organization. When you add the board, those three parts have to work really, really well together for an organization to thrive and move forward in a healthy way.
D/USA: What would you advise someone just beginning a career in arts management/administration?
KB: I would first say, “Great!” Because we really need good people in the field. The other thing I would say is to learn as much as possible in as many areas as possible. Any opportunity that presents itself, even if it’s not strictly in your specific job description, especially early on, take advantage of it because you’ll just learn more.
D/USA: You began your career in Washington, D.C., at the National Endowment for the Arts. Thinking back, can you give us a sense of your long view on where the dance field is now and what’s changed?
KB: Interesting question. I think the thing that’s changed the most over the years is that it just becomes more and more and more difficult to sustain organizations and to sustain the art itself. The funding climate has changed over the years: it’s much more difficult and much more competitive. And the nature of the audience has changed as well. There is just so much more competition for people’s time especially with what’s available online, in new media, and on demand. You just didn’t have that before and that has dramatically changed how audiences relate to live performance and how frequently they attend.
So all of us in this business are really challenged with finding ways to keep our audience growing. People’s lives get busier and busier and busier, so they have less time to spend on the arts. That’s been the major shift in the live performing arts.
D/USA: Are there any steps or strategic planning the organization is taking in relation to this?
KB: We’re focusing intensely on that and have developed a whole range of initiatives. It’s a comprehensive approach to the way we communicate with our audience and potential audience, and a lot of that has to do with accessing media to reach people who may not be familiar with the company. It’s been very successful and we have put a lot of our resources and attention into media products that can reach people outside of New York City who are not able to attend our performances on a regular basis. For example, the AOL On Network just launched season two of an online documentary series called city.ballet., which focuses on the life of the company with a special emphasis on our wonderful dancers. The first season was incredibly popular with more than 13 million viewers, which was really phenomenal, and early reports on viewership for the second season are even stronger.
Another recent project is the feature-length documentary film “Ballet 422,” which focuses on the young choreographer and company dancer, Justin Peck, as he creates a new ballet for our 2013 winter season, which was also the 422nd original ballet created for the company. It premiered to great acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and was then picked up by Magnolia Pictures for a national theatrical release, which began on February 6 in New York and Los Angeles. We have also spent the past few years developing a great deal of original content for distribution on our own digital platforms such as nycballet.com, as well as on Facebook and the NYCB YouTube channel, which now features more than 300 pieces of original content including footage of performances and rehearsals, as well as interviews with our dancers and other artists.
D/USA: I remember the days when you couldn’t find more than 30 seconds of a Balanchine ballet online.
KB: Yes. And there are still things to work out with rights and so forth. It’s still very much a work in progress, but a great tool to be able to use.
We are also doing a lot of strategic collaborations. We’re launching the third year of our Art Series audience development initiative in which we commission a young visual artist to create a site-specific work to be displayed in the theater. Specially priced performances at $29 per ticket are marketed directly to the artist’s fans and social media followers to attract new audiences in a younger demographic. We are in the third year of this initiative and it has been a big success. In our first year 87 percent of single ticket buyers were completely new and had never been to any NYCB performance, and the rate of return is very high. The artwork has also gotten us so much visibility in other areas: visual arts, design, professional advertising, all sorts of places in which we wouldn’t have otherwise been seen.
Our fall gala has been a collaboration with fashion designers for the past several years. Choreographers chosen to create new works are paired with prominent fashion designers who create the costumes for the new ballet. It’s been a fantastic collaboration because it’s drawn audience and press from the fashion industry and other related outlets. We’re trying to work on these types of things on many, many fronts.
D/USA: Interestingly, this approach seems very relevant to the Balanchine legacy, reflecting Balanchine’s own artistic and collaborative ideas. We can only wonder what he might have done with new media.
KB: Absolutely. That’s exactly the point. I’m so glad you said that. It goes back to what I was saying before about maintaining integrity. These projects have been successful for us because they are organic, that is, they build on the tradition of new work and commissioning and collaborating with artists outside of the dance world, a tradition George Balanchine established and the basis for so much of his work and the company’s aesthetic. It’s really very much a part of the organization’s DNA and we’re building on that.
Photos, top: Kathy Brown, photo by Henry Leutwyler, courtesy New York City Ballet
bottom: New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy New York City Ballet
Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications, including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week.
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