Leadership Corner: Dennis Buehler, Executive Director, Oregon Ballet Theatre

Editor’s note: From the Green Room continues its feature, Leadership Corner, disseminating the voices and experiences of leaders in the professional dance field across the United States. Comments or discussion can be posted below or on our Facebook page.

Dennis Buehler

Dennis Buehler was named executive director for Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT) in August 2014. Buehler joined the dynamic Portland community and OBT after leading Milwaukee Ballet in Milwaukee, Wis., as its executive director for seven seasons. OBT has an annual budget of just over $6 million and an administrative and artistic staff that numbers 150 full and part-timers, including 20 administrators, 21 dancers, 12 second company dancers, artistic and production staff and musical artists.  

During his time as executive director, Milwaukee Ballet not only significantly improved its organizational and financial health, but grew to be recognized as a national leader in the development of new work and for its strong commitment to training and community outreach. Buehler previously led the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, also in Wisconsin, for six years, where he was credited with successfully guiding one of the region’s fastest growing arts organizations through its initial strategic, artistic, and organizational development phases.

He has served on the board for The United Performing Arts Fund in Milwaukee, been an active leader within the Milwaukee and Wisconsin art communities. Early in his career, Buehler held various producing roles with a number of theater groups in both Florida and Wisconsin, including the Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee from 1998 to 2002. He graduated from the Professional Theatre Training Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1992 with high honors.

Dance/USA: Tell me about your training.

Dennis Buehler: I trained as a production technician in a conservatory program for actors, technicians, stage managers and designers. Essentially it ran like a producing theater within the university with about 25 actors and 15 technicians and designers. We trained for three years and operated very much like a regional theater.

I had just graduated high school and was accepted into what was a masters-level program. There was some concern that I hadn’t done my bachelor’s work yet, but I talked my way in and joined only one other immediate high school graduate who was an actor. It was an amazing experience training in theater during an extraordinary period of time for that program. It was also a deeply collaborative environment; we were learning to produce theater, creating work, and we worked together as a team. The only problem was that at the end of our three years I had essentially done a master’s level program and the university required me to complete specific academic work to receive my bachelor’s degree.

D/USA: I was going to ask how you made the shift from technical director to administration and management, but hearing about your program you probably already gained a lot of autonomy and decision-making skills early on.

DB: I credit my schooling, our instructors and fellow classmates for allowing me to grow so quickly. As my career advanced, I became very interested in organizational leadership and working at a higher level in the theater. During my time at the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, I worked with some extraordinary people who were incredibly generous and allowed me to play a part in the strategic leadership of the company, something that I don’t believe a lot of production directors usually have the opportunity to do.

That environment, and for that manner many of the people I have been blessed to work with, allowed me to better understand how decisions need to be made for the benefit of the art and the advancement of the organization. That really whetted my appetite to the fact that I wanted to lead a company someday. And when that opportunity came, I jumped at it and never turned back.

D/USA: What did you learn? It sounds like you gained a great understanding of how decisions are made.

DB: Absolutely. I think it’s something every leader needs to know. You need to have a fundamental understanding of how each part intersects and works together, whether it’s operations, marketing, production, business, they all serve, ultimately, the mission, which is the most important part of what we do. You can’t work in a vacuum and not understand how everything you do affects what occurs on stage and the experience your audience will have.

As I moved into my first significant leadership role, I learned that first hand in my role as a general manger, which quickly grew into executive director of a multidisciplinary arts and education center in Milwaukee that was being built. Building a brand-new arts company from the ground up allowed me the opportunity to apply those principals — not only how we operate day-to-day, but how our work would affect the community. We stayed focused on the mission and built a business that best served that community. It was an extraordinary experience I wouldn’t trade for a moment.

D/USA: Tell me about the difference between building an arts center from the ground up, and coming aboard organizations like Milwaukee Ballet or Oregon Ballet Theatre, which have established administrative processes and ways of working?

DB: If I rewind to my time at the Wilson Center, because it was a multidisciplinary center, it wasn’t the model of duel leadership that we so often see in producing dance or theater companies, with an artistic and executive director.

I was quite comfortable in that environment and so proud of what we accomplished, because it was such as collaborative environment focused on what the community wanted from its center, but, quite frankly, after about five or six years, I missed producing and working directly with artists on new work. It gets in your blood. At that time Milwaukee Ballet was looking for new executive leadership. The artistic director was still relatively new to the community and the company had seen its share of financial trouble and was looking for someone to come in, support the new artistic director’s vision and bring it greater health and stability. When they came knocking on my door, I met with Michael Pink and we seemed to hit on a strong partnership. We discussed the potential and I found it to be a really exciting opportunity to be working in a partnership again. That relationship between an executive director and artistic director is not only critical but something I truly enjoy. Not only did it allow me to come back into producing, but it aligned with two other areas I was very interested in: continuing to hone my leadership skills while building an extraordinary school and community outreach effort, which I loved.

I came to dance relatively late in my career but have found it really exciting and simply an extension of my other work in the theater. Milwaukee Ballet was well established. When I arrived it had been operating for about 40 years and had a long, proud history. The same has been true here in Portland. Both companies had their share of troubles, as many organizations do during their life cycles.

When you come into an established organization, there is a wonderful history to learn from and understand. You need to spend time researching what went well and what challenges they faced to develop an understanding of all the people who brought that company along for so many years. It’s a balance of having respect for the mission and being honest with people about where the shortcomings and failures have occurred to correct those while staying true to the ballet’s core mission.

Whether it was in Milwaukee or now my time here in Oregon, I have been blessed with wonderful artistic partners and we have not been afraid to make changes and innovate. I also make sure we spend a bit of time — it’s hard to define how much time — to sit down and listen to trustees, donors, artists and the staff to really understand the history of the organization and what made it so innovative and dynamic. What I enjoy is that people love to talk about what moves them. So it’s not difficult and it doesn’t take long to begin understanding those themes and really find out what excites them about a company. I also learn where people believe that errors or missteps have been made. Really people just want to be listened to. It’s my job to ensure that that information helps inform the decisions everyone knows need to be made. As long as those decisions are understood and made to advance the mission of the organization, it is not terribly difficult to institute change because everyone’s working toward that ultimate goal of a healthy organization that moves its mission forward.

D/USA: We’re looking at a demographic shift in the arts, in our audiences, dancers and administrative staff. Are you finding different challenges, surprises or new ideas in working with the millennial generation?

DB: With the explosion of arts organizations over the years, it’s been well documented how these organizations have grown. A concern I have is that there seem to be fewer and fewer administrators out there. As organizations continue to grow and we lose talent to retirement or other sectors, does that thin out the available talent for these important companies? Are we facing a talent vacuum? Certainly at Oregon Ballet Theatre we try to find the very best talent. Often it’s not always in traditional places. We try to find people who first have a passion for what we’re doing. If you can’t come into the studio and have a true passion for what those artists are doing or what the teachers are trying to accomplish in our branch locations, it becomes very difficult to do your work. A lot of people can draft press releases or write a marketing plan, but employees really have to understand what brings people to dance or the theater. There are a lot of skills that can be taught, but we want to find people who have a real excitement for what we do.

What I’ve found in millennial or younger professionals is a growing group of people interested in creativity and how that manifests itself within the community. So there may be a bit of a deficit of skill sets at a younger age, but I want to find young people who understand how to collaborate and work within a creative environment. We’ve found a lot of success with those individuals.

D/USA: What’s the best piece of advice you received that you still return to?

DB: I keep coming back to this: I don’t know if it was one person’s advice or collected over the years, but here it is: Always stay true to the mission. Never ever forget what we’re about. For OBT it’s trying to create, inspire and share dance at its absolute highest level. You never want to forget that. When you’re in the midst of budget meetings, fundraising calls, marketing strategies, board meetings, or staffing decisions, all decisions are to ultimately serve the art, audience, and community. When you’re sitting in your office on a long 10 to 12 hour day, sometimes you just have to get up and walk into the studio. It’s important to remind ourselves of the art, because that’s what we’re there for.

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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