ArtsATL > Dance > The ArtsATL Q&A: Atlanta Ballet’s Arturo Jacobus discusses how to dance past lean times

The ArtsATL Q&A: Atlanta Ballet’s Arturo Jacobus discusses how to dance past lean times

Jacobus (left) with Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
Arturo Jacobus (left) and Artistic Director John McFall have guided Atlanta Ballet to a new artistic level. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

Arturo Jacobus says he was merely in the right place at the right time when he became executive director of the Atlanta Ballet three years ago.

The ballet had sold its headquarters on West Peachtree Street at the top of the real estate market, erasing a $2.75 million debt in the process. It was scheduled to move into the new Michael C. Carlos Dance Centre, now its home, by August 2010. Momentum was strong in a capital campaign launched by former Executive Director Barry Hughson, and its $14.8 million goal appeared to be in reach.

Jacobus, a former U.S. Navy band conductor and administrator, had directed the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. Later, as executive director of the San Francisco Ballet, he built its endowment from $3.2 million to $35 million and helped transform what was a strong regional company into a national powerhouse.

Atlanta Ballet was on an upward trajectory, but Jacobus saw a need to put it on a more sustainable track. In the summer of 2010, he raised the capital campaign’s goal to $19.3 million and rolled out a three-year plan to increase cash reserves, build the endowment from $2.6 million to $5.6 million, shape a distinct artistic profile and market that profile intelligently. He created a $500,000 Innovation Fund, aiming to reposition the company as an organization committed to creativity.

Within 19 months, Atlanta Ballet was enjoying a spectacular season of world-class repertoire, and its orchestra, once lost, had been re-established. The Goizueta Foundation had awarded the company a $2 million grant, the second-largest gift in the troupe’s 82-year history. And the capital campaign had exceeded its goal, topping out at $20.7 million.

In a recent interview, Jacobus spoke candidly about running a major arts organization in Atlanta and why, despite the country’s recession, the ballet’s financial health has been seemingly resilient.

ArtsATL: These are tough times for the arts. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra locked out its musicians and still faces a $20 million accumulated debt; Georgia Shakespeare faced financial peril a year ago; Theatre in the Square closed in March. Yet Atlanta Ballet has erased its debt, exceeded its capital campaign goal and sharpened its profile in the community, and artistic quality over the past two years has gone up, up up. During an economic downturn, how did you achieve this?

Arturo Jacobus: A lot of the momentum was gathering before I got here. It was expected that there would be a successful campaign for the building. Most of the major supporters, many of whom have been with the ballet for a long time, really understood the need and had the desire to have the ballet in these kind of quarters. The Carlos family made the leadership gift [$3 million] and then came back and made another gift [$1 million] when we did the Phase Two.

Then the Goizueta Foundation and the Woodruff Foundation made substantial gifts. The Goizueta Foundation found the cash reserve idea very attractive and they gave us a million dollars for that, and the other million of the $2 million gift was for infrastructure, for “capacity-building.”

[We moved] to the Tessitura patron services software system that virtually all the major arts organizations in Atlanta have now. We hired a digital marketing consultant [who] set up a platform from which we could learn and grow. We’re pretty sophisticated now in digital marketing, social media and that sort of thing. We have Brian [Wallenburg], an ex-dancer, who does fantastic video work for us, and we have Erin [Zellmer], who maintains the website, and we have a graphic designer who sees to maintaining and growing our image and our brand visually. All of those things were part of the infrastructure-building. Goizueta helped us do that as well.

ArtsATL: It seems miraculous that as the economy was declining, Atlanta Ballet exceeded its capital campaign goal. Yet surely there has been a decrease in giving.

Jacobus: Oh, yeah. It’s hard to measure, but I would say, at a baseline level, yes, I think there’s been a significant decrease in corporate giving. There’s been a significant decrease in government gifts. There has been an increase in individual gifts, and slowly but surely, there has been an increase in foundation gifts.

There was a lot of room for building the fundamentals of this organization. And focusing much more clearly on who we are and where we want to go, such that people would have more confidence in the organization and be more excited about supporting it.

So, yes, we have succeeded in the face of a bad economy. Who knows how much more we would have succeeded in a good economy? And if we have already been at a certain level, in terms of tightly understanding who we are and what we are, and having achieved certain artistic and organizational goals — if we were already there, and the economy dipped, there would be a decline.

Atlanta Ballet brought in new work by Twyla Tharp (in blue shirt) last season. (Photo by Kim Kenney)

ArtsATL: Among Atlanta arts leaders, how do you think the perception of Atlanta Ballet has changed, say, in the last three to five years?

Jacobus: I think the awareness of Atlanta Ballet has increased. I think the esteem in which Atlanta Ballet is held, both artistically and as an organization, has increased a lot. And this building has quite a bit to do with that. I think if you were to ask the arts manager on the street, is Atlanta Ballet a well-run company now, they’d probably say yes. And if you ask them, are they doing exciting work now, I think the answer would be yes.

I think we’ve come from being kind of a vanilla, all-purpose community ballet company to one that has clearly focused on distinguishing itself artistically. And we’ve chosen the path of creativity: new works, world-class choreographers.

That’s not the easiest path. The easy path, which is not a very exciting one for artists, is to do a full season of “Sleeping Beauties” and “Swan Lakes” and so forth. And you do get good ticket sales. But after a while even the audiences get tired of that, because whether they know it or not, and whether they want to admit it or not, audiences are in some ways like artists. They want to be challenged, and they want to have something fresh and exciting and new.

ArtsATL: As a leader of one of Atlanta’s major arts institutions, and since you have worked in other cities, where do you think Atlanta stands in the arts world?

Jacobus: That’s a tough question; it’s a complex question. Are we talking about artistic quality or financial well-being or what?

The Atlanta Symphony I’ve been aware of for the 30 years I’ve been in this business. I was president and general manager of the Oakland Symphony in the early 1980s. And so I was aware of the symphony world. Robert Spano is one of the most esteemed conductors in the business. I’ve been to Atlanta Symphony concerts. [In] one of the most memorable, they did Verdi’s Requiem. And it was just to die for; it was beautiful. Atlanta has arguably one of the finest symphony orchestras in the country. But it’s struggling.

A lot of symphony orchestras are struggling. Philadelphia just came out of bankruptcy, and we know what’s happening in Detroit. You look at San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Boston, and they’re really doing well. But it seems like nearly everybody else is struggling.

All major orchestras in this country perform at a very high artistic level. I mean that’s just the name of the game. There’s no such thing as a mediocre American major symphony, you know; they’re all terrific. Atlanta is among the top, in my opinion.

So it’s heartbreaking when you see them struggling financially. And I don’t know what it is; certainly it’s lack of support. It’s lack of support, perhaps, at the box office, though I don’t know that. But it’s certainly lack of support philanthropically.

It costs a certain amount of money to have a quality orchestra, and an orchestra has to have a certain number of players. So to say, well, they’re getting paid too much, or they have too long a season, or they ought to have [fewer] players or something, is ridiculous. You either have a great orchestra or you don’t have any orchestra, as far as I’m concerned.

ArtsATL: So there are certain organizations that just have larger endowments; they just have more money pouring into them. A lot of them are in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco — places where there’s a lot more wealth.

Jacobus: There’s [also] a longer history of support, and let’s not forget the box office. When you talk about Los Angeles and 20,000 people coming to the Hollywood Bowl, and you talk about San Francisco selling out virtually every night of their season, you know, there’s a culture, there’s a tradition of going to and supporting the arts. And that tradition doesn’t seem to be as strong or strong enough to support the Atlanta Symphony the way it should be supported.

ArtsATL: Do you think that’s also true for Atlanta Ballet?

Jacobus: Yes. This is kind of simplistic, but Atlanta’s a city of six million people, roughly, and Houston’s a city of, I think, around six million people, somewhere in that neighborhood. Atlanta Ballet has a budget of $9 million, and Houston Ballet has a budget of something in the $20 million range. That’s kind of simplistic, but it’s an indicator.

That’s nothing against Atlanta; it’s just where we are in the evolution of the city. But little by little, hopefully what we’re doing will eventually garner enough interest that we’re playing to full houses, you know? We’re trying to take a road that speaks to excitement and new audiences.

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