Arts as a business: Ballet Idaho

Jessica Sulikowski and Andrew Taft rehearse for an upcoming performance in sun valley
Jessica Sulikowski and Andrew Taft rehearse for the company’s Sun Valley performance. Photo courtesy of Ballet Idaho

This is the third in a four-part series on the economic impact of local arts groups.

Ballet Idaho has undergone some big changes in the past few months, with both a new artistic director and a new executive director.

photo of laura mulkey
Laura Mulkey

Executive director Laura von Boecklin Mulkey started July 15 with the Boise-based organization, after a position as executive director at the College of Western Idaho Foundation, while artistic director Garrett Anderson joined the company in July 2018.

“He’s the one who oversees the dancers and the production and artistic vision for the organization,” Mulkey said. “I handle fundraising and operational. People are pretty excited he’s on board.”

Anderson is bringing a new contemporary vision for the company, Mulkey said.

“The contemporary direction is a new direction for us,” she said. “Ballet Idaho in the past hasn’t had as much of that focus. From everything I’ve heard, he’s contributing to our ability to attract and retain dancers, because they’re excited to work with him.”

That contemporary direction is also expected to draw a younger audience, something a number of arts organizations are struggling to do.

“Classical ballet definitely appeals to some of our patrons who’ve been fans for years,” Mulkey said. “The younger crowd appreciates the creativity and innovation that happens in a contemporary dance piece.”

The organization recently underwent a strategic planning process that is intended to take it through 2024.

“One of the goals is to make sure our business model is designed to sustain and grow the organization,” Mulkey said. “A big focus in the next year is assessing where we are and coming up with some recommendations about what we need to have in place for future growth.”

These include things like business processes and internal systems, such as human resource management and computer systems, Mulkey said.

“You can do really well if you stay the same size, but if you’re planning for growth, you need a solid foundation.”

Choreographer Danielle Rowe with dancer Annika Dalbrat and Rehearsal Director Anne Mueller taking notes
Choreographer Danielle Rowe with dancer Annika Dalbrat and Rehearsal Director Anne Mueller taking notes. Photo courtesy of Ballet Idaho

Currently, Ballet Idaho has an annual budget of $2.2 million, with about 35% coming from contributed support such as donations and grants, and ticket sales contributing 37%, Mulkey said. Other components are 17% for tuition at the organization’s dance academy, 7% for special events such as its gala and fashion show and 4% for “other,” such as sales at the company’s gift store.

“One of the most surprising things for me when I came was to find out how much goes into one of our productions,” Mulkey said.

For example, over the last couple of years, Ballet Idaho has held a major capital campaign to raise $1 million to pay for a new production of The Nutcracker, the quintessential Christmas ballet that is also the company’s biggest performance of the year.

“The Nutcracker alone accounts for 60% of our box office revenue and 20% of our revenue,” Mulkey said. “The Nutcracker costumes and set will last us for 20 years, and they were at the end of their lifecycle.”

Outside of the capital campaign, Ballet Idaho has a payroll of around $900,000 a year, between full-time staff and contract labor. That includes musicians for the performances that have live music, as well as dancers. For example, production expenses for The Nutcracker in 2018 were $150,000, including $3,450 for lighting design and other components such as choreography and props, she said.

Going forward, growth could include more performances – currently, productions are typically staged over a single weekend – as well as bringing in artists from other cities to expose the audience to dance from other areas, Mulkey said.

“The other thing I’ve heard is, we are ‘Ballet Idaho,’ we are not ‘Ballet Boise,’ so what does it look like to be ‘Ballet Idaho’?” Mulkey said. “What would it look like if we took our ballet elsewhere?”

This summer the company performed in Sun Valley, just weeks after the San Francisco Ballet.

“It was an opportunity to introduce that community to the work we’re doing, and make them aware that we’re here.”

Esther Simplot creates a $3 million endowment for the arts

Esther Simplot with performers from Ballet Idaho, Boise Philharmonic and Opera Idaho. Photo courtesy of Idaho Community Foundation.
Esther Simplot with performers from Ballet Idaho, Boise Philharmonic and Opera Idaho. Photo courtesy of Idaho Community Foundation.

Local arts patron Esther Simplot has established a $3 million endowed fund that will provide about $45,000 a year each to the Boise Philharmonic, Ballet Idaho and Opera Idaho.

The Pauline Becker and Dorothy Simplot Memorial Endowment Fund was placed at the Idaho Community Foundation to permanently fund the three organizations.

“Giving to my art organizations is my way of thanking them for all the hard work they have done,” Simplot said in a prepared statement. “It’s a way of letting them know that I do appreciate the giant strides they have made and that everyone – from the performers to the administrative people – has contributed to this success.”

A prior $1.1 million endowment in 1992 from Esther and J.R. Simplot established the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, home of the opera, philharmonic and ballet.

“Opera Idaho wouldn’t exist without her continuous and generous support,” said Mark Junkert, general director of Opera Idaho. “This gift will sustain us into the future.”

“Mrs. Simplot’s passionate and steadfast belief in the arts has inspired Boise to reach new heights,” said Peter Anastos, artistic director of Ballet Idaho. “Ballet Idaho is very grateful for this endowment, which will insure us a reliable source of support always.”

Ballet Idaho means business

Ballet Idaho in rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Ballet Idaho.
Ballet Idaho in rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Ballet Idaho.

Ballet Idaho ended the season this year without debt for the first time in eight years, officials said.

Executive Director Jenny Weaver, who joined Ballet Idaho last spring, ended the fiscal year $25,000 in the black. When she took the job, Ballet Idaho had $50,000 debt on a $1.4 million operating budget.

Spring 2014 was a time of fresh starts for the ballet. Along with Weaver,  a new marketing director and a new development director joined the six-person staff as well. Weaver was hired for her business acumen, said Kathryn Zimmerman, Ballet Idaho’s board president.

“We felt she had really strong leadership skills,” Zimmerman said. “She’s a numbers person and personable. We were looking for someone who could run a business.”

Weaver started almost concurrently with marketing director Meredith Stead and development director KC Driscoll. Fundraising had been in flux for several years, a dire state in the arts world where ticket sales rarely come close to covering half of expenses.

Meredith Stead
Meredith Stead

Fundraising ended up 15 percent over budget for 2014/15 as Driscoll rebuilt relations with donors who had drifted away and established ties to new donors. Ticket sales also were 10 percent over budget. Year-to-year increases in donations and ticket sales were not immediately available, Stead said.

Expenses were sliced to 6 percent below the projected budget without reducing wages, Weaver said.

“We were very conservative on spending,” Weaver said. “We kept it within our means. We looked at things more microscopically. We looked at our phone system and copier. How can we save $1,000 here and there? With productions, do you need to spend $10,000 on a set or can you reuse some pieces and spend $5,000 less?”

Stead aggressively took Ballet Idaho to the Internet, launching a new, responsive website in fall 2014 that for the first time was tailored for tablets, phones and laptops.

“We figured out how to reach people without (the expense of) putting a full-page ad in the Idaho Statesman,” Stead said. “We did a lot of social media advertising and public events like Art in the Park. Facebook hadn’t been touched by Ballet Idaho before I arrived.”

In the meantime, on the artistic front, Peter Anastos, artistic director since 2008, has acquired the rights of a staging from legendary choreographer George Balanchine for the third straight season with ”Valse Fantasie.” And, for the first time, Ballet Idaho will stage a Twyla Tharp-choreographed show, “Nine Sinatra Songs.” The Tharp and Balanchine are in the same February performances.

“We’re bringing performances never brought here before,” Weaver said.

Modern dance has also taken root in the past year with workshop performances called “NewDance, Up Close” at the 200-seat Esther Simplot Performing Arts Annex. NewDance has been formalized into the subscription series for the upcoming season with two sets of performances in November and March.

“We are expanding into modern dance,” Zimmerman said. “The public is liking that.”

Weaver is calling NewDance “a huge hit.”

Ballet Idaho took NewDance and its Academy of Dance to Sun Valley as the company strives to extend its reach beyond downtown Boise.

“The essence is in our name: Ballet Idaho,” Weaver said. “We’re not Ballet Boise. We’re the only professional ballet company in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. We want to try to reach the other end of the Treasure Valley – Caldwell and Nampa.”

Ballet Idaho is in talks with a number of potential donors to sponsors individual productions in the 2015-16 season, which also include the perennial holiday ballet “The Nutcracker,” which, for the first time sold out all five performances last year; and “The Sleeping Beauty.” A production can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $70,000, Stead said.

“Any one of our performances can be ‘presented by  your-name-here,’” Stead said. “We need individuals and corporations at the $10,000-plus level.”

“What I want everyone to know is giving back to the community is very important,” Weaver said. “By supporting the arts organizations, it will help companies hire the caliber employees they want to hire.”

Christine Nicholas
Christine Nicholas

Christine Nicholas, an attorney at the Moffatt Thomas law firm in Boise, has donated thousands of dollars to Ballet Idaho over the course of several years.

“I think the arts in the community make it a more vibrant, cultured and more interesting place to live,” Nicholas said. “I enjoy Boise so much more because Ballet Idaho is here. I have taken quite a lot of my clients to Ballet Idaho performances, some of them who were very new to the community, and they were so excited to see Boise have such high-quality performing arts.”