Atlanta Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” which opened December 11 at the Fox Theatre, marked several milestones: the company’s 80th-anniversary season, 50 years of “Nutcracker” productions and 15 years of John McFall’s artistic direction. To top it off, Atlanta Ballet board Chairman Allen Nelson introduced the company’s new executive director, Arthur Jacobus, and thanked Virginia Hepner for stepping in as interim executive director after Barry Hughson departed for Boston Ballet last May.
With dignified stature, Jacobus, 69, greeted the audience with an infectious smile. He’s happy to be back in the ballet world — it’s been seven years since he left his post as executive director of San Francisco Ballet. But he’s still one of the most respected arts administrators in his field, and his track record proves it. Artistically, SFB rose from strong regional status to become, by 2001, a national powerhouse.
Several years ago, while Jacobus was running the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville, McFall contacted him about serving as an adviser to Atlanta Ballet. “My long-range view was if I could entice him into being able to spend some time consulting with Atlanta Ballet, maybe one day, it would be a dream that he could be executive director,” McFall recalled. “It’s a personal dream come true.”
In a recent interview with me, Jacobus spoke with warmth and confidence about his background, his nine years at SFB (which is the country’s oldest professional ballet company), and his plans for Atlanta Ballet (which is the country’s longest continuously operating ballet company).
A musician by training, Jacobus spent 22 years as a U.S. Navy band conductor and administrator. He then served as president and general manager of the Oakland Symphony and went on to earn a master’s degree in arts administration and an MBA from Golden Gate University.
In 1984, Jacobus became CEO and president of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Working with artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, Jacobus helped make the company fully professional and led a $13.5 million capital campaign, $10 million of which helped build a new ballet center at the Seattle Center.
San Francisco Ballet offered him its executive directorship in 1993. He accepted, even though the company faced a huge accumulated deficit and would soon face an 18-month hiatus from San Francisco’s historic War Memorial Opera House due to seismic upgrades and repairs. But artistically, Jacobus said, “they were ready to go.”
Helgi Tomasson, a former dancer with New York City Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and Harkness Ballet, became SFB artistic director in 1985. He had started elevating classical standards, building an eclectic repertory and nurturing the emotional expressiveness of individual artists, according to New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff. In 1995, she wrote that Tomasson’s “Swan Lake” had put the regional company on the international dance map. SFB made its Paris Opéra debut in 1994.
Though the 18-month hiatus from the San Francisco opera house could have been deadly, Jacobus and Tomasson saw the obstacle as an opportunity. By performing in more intimate spaces in town and across the bay in Berkeley, the company formed stronger connections with audiences, which in turn helped build the company’s endowment. During his nine years, Jacobus erased a $3.2 million accumulated deficit and built its endowment from $3 million to $35 million.
New and interesting repertory created for the smaller venues was more adaptable to touring. (This smart strategy should be of interest to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Alliance Theatre when the Woodruff Arts Center embarks on a massive project to build a new concert hall on campus. ArtsCriticATL wrote about those plans here.)
But in order to commit to a tour, SFB needed seed money. So Jacobus raised $1 million to get the ball rolling. Eventually, SFB toured about 30 countries within four years. “We stretched that million and leveraged it to something like $5-6 million,” Jacobus recalled.
By 2002, the 69-member company ranked in the first tier among American classical companies, just behind American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. International repertory for the 2001-2002 season included works by the most distinguished choreographers in the field — William Forsythe, Mark Morris, Angelin Prejlocaj, Christopher Wheeldon and Nacho Duato — as well as a healthy dose of Jerome Robbins and Balanchine repertory.
But just as SFB was at the top of its game, Jacobus left, seeking independence and freedom to head an organization on his own. During a seven-year period, Jacobus served as president of Kentucky Center for the Arts, president and director of Copia, a food and wine cultural center in Napa, California, and as CEO and executive director of the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle. “I like challenges to a fault,” he said. Having gotten that out of his system, Jacobus says he’s returning to the ballet world “refreshed and enthused.”
As Jacobus steps in as executive director of Atlanta Ballet, the company is in better financial shape than ever, thanks in part to Hughson’s efforts during his brief tenure. In August, the debt-free company will move into its newly renovated LEED-certified headquarters at 1695 Marietta Blvd. With $13.6 million of its $14.8 million capital campaign raised to date, Atlanta Ballet seems poised for flight.
Jacobus hesitates to lay out plans for Atlanta Ballet’s future before he’s had time to investigate the company and community. But financial stability comes first; Jacobus plans to wrap up the capital campaign, continue fund-raising, improve marketing and increase ticket sales.
For the long-term plan, Jacobus uses the expression “world class” cautiously. Atlanta Ballet needs to figure out what they do better than anyone else, he said, and carve out their own niche in the dance world in order to distinguish themselves on the national and international stage.
He also hesitates to discuss repertory, an artistic decision for McFall. But he believes it’s important to build audiences, educate them and keep them up with current tastes. “Audiences are just like artists. They don’t like to stay in one place. They want to be brought along, and I think it’s the responsibility of the company and the artistic director to bring them along,” Jacobus told me. In other words, it means spending the money needed to bring in repertory by the world’s most sought-after choreographers.
McFall sees world-class repertory — works by choreographers who’ve made a significant contribution to the dance world at large — as an essential ingredient for a company’s sustainability. “Not only for your audience development, it’s also for the artistic nourishment spiritually for the dancer,” McFall explained. Works by choreographers like William Forsythe, Jiří Kylián, Nacho Duato and Jorma Elo are essential to becoming world-class, McFall said, “but if it doesn’t fit into the financial plan, the vision can’t be fulfilled.”
Jacobus realizes that there will be times when artistic vision and financial reality don’t mesh, and he’ll have to make difficult decisions. “Every artistic decision is a financial decision, and every financial decision is an artistic decision,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, it’s all about quality. Quality will get you where you want to go in terms of the audience, in terms of ticket sales, in terms of attracting dancers, in terms of fund-raising and everything else.
“So while we’ve always got to … be good stewards of the budget and the organization, it is, after all, an artistic organization. And art is about attaining the highest level of quality that one can achieve. Sometimes compromise is necessary, but at the end of the day, the default ought to always be towards quality.”