Q&A with Cheri Mitchell

By
From the December 2013 issue of Columbus CEO
  • Photos by Ryan M.L. Young

BalletMet’s executive director Cheri Mitchell was always a dance fan, never a dancer. She took her first dance class as a theater major at Ohio State and became hooked soon after attending an American Ballet Theatre performance in NYC.

“The whole time I was at CATCO and before, I was attending BalletMet. Because I was really inspired by dance and thought, ‘If I could have been anything, I would have been a dancer,’” says Mitchell.

The jack-of-all-trades ethic she honed as managing director of Columbus’s professional theater company CATCO served her well when she moved to BalletMet in 1998. “When I came to BalletMet, I think they saw that I had a big picture view of what an organization is to a community, to individuals,” says Mitchell.

In her 15 year tenure, Mitchell has served with three artistic directors, weathered the Great Recession and maintained the BalletMet’s mission to engage audiences in a classical yet dynamic art. In July, BalletMet hired internationally acclaimed artistic director Edwaard Liang.

With subscriptions and ticket sales up and the promise of Liang’s original new works in 2014 and beyond, Mitchell, Liang and BalletMet are poised to close 2013 triumphantly with the company’s annual production of Tchiakovsky’s The Nutcracker.

* Interview has been edited and condensed

Describe your work as executive director of BalletMet:

The main responsibility is to coordinate and lead and work in partnership with our board of trustees on all areas of the organization that have to do with marketing, fundraising, our education programs, the business side of our academy, our finance areas. And I do that…in partnership with our board of trustees and also with the artistic director who coordinates all of the artistic side…So we really work very closely to make sure that the mission of BalletMet is fulfilled.

 

What is the length of a dancer’s contract?

Paid 36 weeks, all of their benefits though are year-round. Typically, our dancers come back at the very end of July or the first of August and are usually here through our season, so the end of April (or) first couple weeks of May.

Do they audition again after the 36-week period?

It is a one-year contract.

The longest tenured dancer right now is starting his 19th season at BalletMet and then we have others who have just started. Dancers retire, they decide to choose a different path after a while. But yes, each year they are offered a contract. Once you’re in the company, it’s not a formal audition but there’s an evaluation. They meet with the artistic director throughout the season, and then they are either offered a contract or they are not offered a contract.

How does a new artistic director change the feel of the company?

Our search process was about 10 months and our dancers were very much involved in that search process, as well as community members and board members.

This is the third director for me, since I’ve been at BalletMet. And each one may have a slightly different aesthetic or what they might be looking at programmatically, but I would say at BalletMet there is a strong foundation and an agreement. Part of the search was to say we want to continue to provide a mix, a variety of work, so classical ballet works, more contemporary dance as well as some works that appeal to a family audience, in addition to Nutcracker, like Alice in Wonderland.

How does a new artistic director change the feel of the company?

Our search process was about 10 months and our dancers were very much involved in that search process, as well as community members and board members.

This is the third director for me, since I’ve been at BalletMet. And each one may have a slightly different aesthetic or what they might be looking at programmatically, but I would say at BalletMet there is a strong foundation and an agreement. Part of the search was to say we want to continue to provide a mix, a variety of work, so classical ballet works, more contemporary dance as well as some works that appeal to a family audience, in addition to Nutcracker, like Alice in Wonderland.

How do you stay competitive in recruiting dancers and talent?

We audition of course, not only here—people will come in here to audition—but we typically audition always in New York City each year. We also typically do an audition out on the West Coast and Columbus and then sometimes maybe Houston or one other city. And that allows the artistic director to have the opportunity to see dancers in those areas outside of the Midwest.

They’re initially looking at the company, you know, what kind of work are they going to get to dance. When you have someone like Edwaard, now, there (are) many dancers who are going to want to, I think, be able to be a part of BalletMet.

We do have to provide them information about Columbus and the Central Ohio area to let them know that in fact we have a rich mix of offerings here…It’s a big city, and I think sometimes they just don’t know.

Do you work much with the Central Ohio business community?

We have a wonderful board. It’s a larger board. There are 47 or 48 members right now. It’s a big board, a very active board, a very working board, which is important. There’s representation in many sectors of our community on our board: business/corporate, education, law, accounting, individual businesses, insurance, many different types of people who are on our board. They are a wealth of knowledge.

We’re members of the Chamber, we’re members of Experience Columbus. We’re tried to always be very connected and participate in Columbus.

As cultural draw, what role does BalletMet play in attracting businesses and the workforce to Columbus?

We just ran some statistics which I find quite interesting. Talk about attracting audiences here: We have 60-70,000 people who come to Columbus, to our performances here locally.

We know just from research that the Greater Columbus Arts Council, America for the Arts, how much those individuals, they’re not just buying tickets—the economic impact is fairly significant. We also know that in 2012, our Nutcracker production, which we did 16 public performances, 43% of that audience came from outside of Franklin County

We attract people in, and once they have great experiences here with BalletMet they go out and they talk about Columbus.

 

How did BalletMet weather the recession?

Unfortunately, I think a number of dance companies in the state of Ohio folded during bad economic times in the very late 90s…and then again more recently…there’s no major professional ballet company in Cleveland, and Akron had also lost theirs.

BalletMet had gone through some very tough times (in the 90s), as I think many organizations did at that time. At that point in time, there were a lot of expense reductions and staff was taking unpaid furloughs. In 2008-9, our season was the worst I had ever seen since I’d been here, maybe one of the very worst ever. It was like this perfect storm. Our audiences decreased….our Nutcracker dropped almost $200,000 in revenue in one year from the year before.

Companies (were being cautious about making contributions); when you’re laying off people you’re less likely to be making contributions to other nonprofit organizations in the community. And government was starting to pull back. The next year it was still kind of rough. We made major adjustments.

Our staff had a raise one time in those five years. In three of those years, there were unpaid furloughs.

We also invested, and it was very interesting, sort of counter-intuitive…we wanted to make sure we maintained the artistic core, that we didn’t damage that, so we wanted to make those investments so that the audience both for performances and in our school did not suffer.

In fact, our board took a very, very bold step. We had done some significant research with the help of the Columbus Foundation. (They) provided funding for us to…look at our programming, to look at the market share here. Could we continue to be the type of company that we were, or had times shifted so much and was there a market for what we were doing?

That research was pretty strong that the market was there. In fact, with an investment of additional revenue, they felt that we could generate an additional half-million in ticket sales over three years. At the end of the 2009-10 season when we were still in great economic recession, our board agreed to try to raise an additional $400,000 a year for three years which we could invest in our artistic product but also in marketing to reach this audience. That campaign just concluded on June 30 of 2013.

We actually grew audience…during the Great Recession because our board stepped up in a big way.

How are season ticket sales for 2013-14 season?

(This is the) fourth year that our subscriber base (will have) grown. We’re tracking ahead right now. Last year we had just under 2,000 subscribers. I think we’ll have more than 2,000 subscribers this year.

I’ve been hearing since before I came to BalletMet that the subscriber model is dead, that nobody wants to subscribe anymore. We really haven’t found that. We provide different package options—not everyone wants to subscribe the same way.

For many years our subscriber base had declined, but beginning in 2009-10, our subscriber base has increased every year, as have all of our single-ticket sales.

How did you bring your experience at CACTO to BalletMet?

When I became managing director (of CATCO), the organization was maybe $250-$260,000. When I left it was $1 million. …at CATCO we were a small team at the time. You really had, not only the opportunity, you pretty much had to do everything. So we had a small team and we really learned together and really grew an organization over time, from scratch really in many things.

It was a very exciting time. Geoff Nelson was the founder and artistic director. We could be cleaning restrooms one minute then having a strategic planning (meeting) the next and then submitting your grant. It was, you know, all hands on deck.

I came to BalletMet to be the director of marketing and communications. BalletMet was a larger organization…I saw it as an opportunity. I was really totally engaged by the passion and the commitment of the artistic director at that time, which was David Nixon. I loved what BalletMet was trying to do. I loved what CATCO was, but it was a new challenge for me.

What are the challenges of leading a larger group of employees?

Our department heads, the directors of each of the main areas of BalletMet, we meet every week. So we do many things to try to make sure that we’re focused and leading the organization.

We consider the dancers full time because they are full time during that 36 weeks—we have about 58 full-time employees. But we have, in total, a little over120 employees, because or dance academy has a number of part time people.

People need support. My door’s always open, sometimes people have challenges. There’s a lot more things that have to do with, you think about payroll, insurance. There (are) really big decisions. We own this facility. We had a tenant in one of the buildings for a long time. We have satellites. The scope is larger, so you’re spending a significant amount of time.

Sometimes you have to step back and prioritize. I’m a big fan of Jim Collins, (who wrote) Good to Great, his books, his philosophy. One of the things he says is that everyone has their to-do list, but you also should have your not-to-do list. And I thought, that’s very difficult for us…but sometimes we have to say, where can we make the most impact? It’s that strategy. Really, prioritization is important and I think it’s difficult.

What techniques do you use to keep your creative workforce inspired and on board with BalletMet’s mission?

I’m going to give great kudos to Edwaard, our new artistic director. In August, we brought in…a coach that he had worked with. She works a lot of big companies like Deloitte and others, but she has a passion for dance and has worked with many dancers in coaching…communication, how to better understand each other. Make sure that you’re clearly understood but be respectful of the other person, and how to do that.

We all sort of get into thinking we know our areas and we don’t understand what that other area, what that other individual might be having to balance.

The entire organization needs to be focused on how to make sure when we talk about our mission (that) our mission is about providing artistic programming, educational programming, creating new work. The marketing, the fundraising, is about furthering that part of our mission. I think we’ve tried to be very clear that that’s central.

We want to invest in all of our people at BalletMet, but there’s a real clarity around that that’s still the focus. We could hire all kinds of accountants and other people but it won’t matter if what happens on the artistic and educational side is not served.