The Business of Art

Financially burdened, nonprofit institutions struggle to make dreams come true

management system, where the artistic director and executive director positions are parallel. There’s a clear division of responsibility and investors can rest easy knowing that the business will survive its founder.

Step two was to clear the $2.5 million debt the company was carrying. Cash injections from several donors, which totaled $1.6 million, in addition to a $1 million pledge from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, put the Dance Theatre back into the black and brought it closer to the $4 million required to bring the main company back to the stage. The company hopes to have it back at the beginning of fiscal year 2006, which starts July 1. Step three was to build new audiences by continuing to diversify the main company, which already represents dancers of African American, Latino, Russian, Japanese, French, and Portuguese descent.

A REVELATION
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, like the Boys Choir of Harlem and The Dance Theatre of Harlem, had humble beginnings. It gained wide acclaim over the decades but experienced a financial rough patch in the early 1990s. Sharon Gersten Luckman, the company’s executive director, recalls not being able to mail fundraising letters because there was no money for postage. “We were having cash-flow issues at the time,” she says.

The Alvin Ailey company had a great touring schedule but its fundraising was weak. There were very few individuals of means on the board and the organization was carrying an accumulated deficit of $1.5 million, notes Kaiser, who was hired by the board in 1991. “It was pitiful. Individual donors were only giving $165,000 per year toward a budget of $6 million,” he says. “We had to radically change the board to include people that could raise and give more money.”

The organization’s strategy was to launch an exhaustive marketing effort, with the company giving small performances all over New York City, including at the Smithsonian and in Central Park. Artistic Director Judith Jamison oversaw each production. The exposure attracted to the board individuals with abundant revenue streams, among them Chairwoman Joan Weill (philanthropist), Vice Chairman Chris Williams, President Henry McGee (president of HBO Home Video), Vice President Bruce Gordon (president and CEO of the NAACP), and Debra Lee (president and CEO of Black Entertainment Television). These efforts doubled the organization’s fundraising from $1.7 million in 1992 to $3.4 million in 1993.

Before leaving the Alvin Ailey company in 1993, Kaiser aligned the organization with the National Arts Stabilization Fund, which offered to match the amount of money the Alvin Ailey company saved, in an effort to erase its debt. And the Alvin Ailey company has not only stayed in the black but it’s been able to build a $54 million permanent home at 405 West 55th Street in New York City, named The Joan Weill Center for Dance, as a result of a fundraising effort that raised $72.5 million. The leftover $18.5 million was the foundation for the company’s endowment fund. The company’s U.S. tour was launched in January and will visit 23 cities

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