Carolina Ballet prepares for Act II

Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. – The last two years have been hard on the Carolina Ballet, but after a shift in its organizational choreography, the company appears poised for a more robust second act.

The Great Recession was brutal for arts organizations, and museums and performing-arts groups across the U.S. were forced to make drastic cuts, with some even facing their final curtain call.

The Carolina Ballet in Raleigh was no exception.

During the 2008-09 season, ticket sales fell 3 percent to $2.2 million and the number of donors plunged 15 percent, says Lisa Jones, executive director of the organization.

While long-term loyal donors stepped up with one-time gifts, total contributed income for the season still declined slightly to $2.6 million, forcing the company to dip into reserves to cover its $5.5 million budget.

The 2009-10 season wasn’t much better, with ticket sales falling another 13 percent to $1.9 million, and donors dropping another 10 percent, contributing to a decline in contributed income to $2.1 million.

And when the University of North Carolina at Wilmington canceled a joint summer intensive program that the ballet has participated in for two years, another $230,000 in income evaporated.

Despite those hits to income, the ballet fared better than many other arts organizations.

Unlike older, more established groups, the Carolina Ballet has no endowment, therefore no investment losses from the market crashes, and no state funding to be axed when Gov. Beverly Perdue went trolling for budget cuts.

“We entered the 2008-09 fiscal year in the strongest financial condition of our history, so we were better prepared to weather this than most,” says Jones.

But again in fiscal 2010, the ballet was forced to tap into its reserves to meet a newly-lowered budget of $5 million.

Over the last two years, the Carolina Ballet has canceled performances, reduced both artistic and administrative staff positions, frozen salaries and saved on costume and set costs by staging existing works.

“We all made choices about how to change or streamline our operations,” says Jones of arts organizations nationwide. “But you can only do that for so long or you can create a downward spiral that hurts your product and your ability to deliver.”

To prevent that nosedive, the ballet launched a strategic planning process in 2009 that dramatically shifted its fundraising and artistic approach.

Beginning with the launch of the 2010-11 season that began in July, the troupe hired two individual-gifts officers, moved its sold-out summer program to St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, scheduled five world premieres for the season, increased the number of shows and moved half its performances to a different venue.

“Thus far it’s really paid off,” Jones says of the changes. “We’re ahead of last year in dollars raised, and our donors are receiving the kind of personal attention they deserve.”

That attention includes one-on-one meetings at the studio with previous donors and long-time subscribers, complete with a tour of the theater and a peek at training sessions.

In one case, that personal touch turned a $100 donor into someone who has pledged $1,000 a year for five years, says Jones.

“We have so many people who were eager to get that phone call,” she says. “Now they feel a deeper connection because they’ve been in the studio and watched the dancers in person.”

Ticket sales seem to be inching back up, too, with season-opener Firebird falling just shy of its goal, Dracula on track to post seven sold-out performances ,and opening-days sales for The Nutcracker 15 percent higher this year than last.

And income from the 2010-11 subscription campaign has topped $625,000 to reach 95 percent of its goal for the year.

While Jones says more people buy ticket packages, those subscribers generally are purchasing lower-priced packages, which were designed specifically to appeal to budget-conscious consumers.

And now that the ballet has moved half its performances from Memorial Auditorium to the smaller Fletcher Opera Theatre next door, it’s able to put on more performances.

Jones believes that added flexibility is appealing to her audience.

“If you’re creating that new work, your subscribers have the opportunity to choose from more performances,” she says. “Yet for the Nutcracker, we still have that big venue. This gave us the opportunity to get creative.”

That new energy brought with it new corporate sponsors, says Jones, including First Citizens Bank, Carolina Clinic at UNC and Rex UNC Health Care.

“You’re starting to see the corporate community being willing to partner again,” she says. “And now we have the product we can get them excited about.”

While the economy itself is still struggling, and the future of the Carolina Ballet is not guaranteed, Jones believes the changes and investments the organization positioned it to take advantage of the recovery, whenever that may be.

The budget for the current season is back up to $5.4 million, the contributed-income goal is $2.8 million and Jones is hoping earned income will rebound to $2.6 million.

“I don’t know how the year will end,” says Jones. “But I think our investments will pay off.”

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