Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts has long been a jewel in the artistic crown of the Queen City.
The construction of a $72 million facility in 2010 – championed by the late Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel and recently deceased arts patron Norma Petersen – only enhanced that reputation.
Then, in 2014, the investment firm to which Friends of SCPA – the school’s 40-year-old fundraising arm – had entrusted nearly $500,000, was shut down as part of a federal fraud investigation. The Friends organization collapsed, and the school’s reputation came into question, even with those who had been its chief benefactors.
As a result, a study commissioned from the DeVos Institute of Arts Management determined that “all sides – defined as school leadership, district and board leadership – share credit and fault” for the state of the school.
“What is clear,” the report summary continued, “is that the overall foundation is weak and must be improved.” The report said the fundraising “debacle was, therefore, merely symptomatic of a more widespread culture absent of sufficient capacity, checks and balances, and clear jurisdiction.”
The report called for four new staff positions, in addition to the school principal and artistic director, as well as the establishment of volunteer committees to help with development and marketing.
Given the compromised nature of the existing administration, the school board decided in May 2015 to reassign the principal and artistic director and hire a new administrative staff.
That summer, new administrators came on board:
Nick Nissley, executive director
Michael Owens, principal
Angela Walker, artistic director
Teresa Summe-Haas, external relations officer
The immediate challenge was to fill the void left by the previous administration. The new team conducted what Nissley called “triage” – a lot of listening, learning and figuring out what most needed attention.
There were lots of questions from students, faculty and staff and much uncertainty. According to Walker, “It was a bit chaotic in the sense that we were in the weeds with a lot of things, so it was hard to get an overview. We had to listen a lot.”
In spite of all this, Nissley said, “There was a willingness (among faculty and staff) to move on – a recognition that here was an opportunity where ‘we’re not going to go down anymore.’”
“We all were ready for a positive change and a positive outlook on our school,” said Jane Simon, elementary dance teacher.
While the new administrators were busy attending to the needs of faculty, staff and students, Nissley realized “the real crisis was that we had lost the trust and confidence of our investors, of the donor community.” The public couldn’t discern the difference between the Friends of SCPA fundraising organization and the school itself, he said.
A $260,000 anonymous gift provided a bridge to assist in the short term, but there was urgency to move quickly.
“On day one, we sat down with Neal and Donna Mayerson of the Mayerson Foundation, our biggest funder, and were told, ‘We believe in you.’”
Jeff Seibert, Mayerson’s grants officer and manager of the Mayerson Artistic Excellence Program at SCPA, remains encouraging. “With their first year behind them, we confidently look forward to Nick, Michael and Angela’s leadership and SCPA’s very talented students to be the next generation of great American artists,” he said.
From five separate reports about the school’s circumstances (of which the DeVos was one), the leadership team distilled 44 goals and created a measurable stabilization plan.
Rebuilding trust was key.
“We met with every donor within the first few weeks,” Nissley said. “All of them said, ‘We’ll continue with you.’ Except one, who said, ‘Show me,’ which was completely fair. Six months later he came on board, as well, and has since doubled his commitment.”
From the comments of several staff and faculty members, the sense is the new team has steadied the ship and is on the right course.
“The school has been more structured with the leadership of Principal Owens and assistance of the new positions of executive director, additional counselor and marketing/PR person,” said Harvey Lewis, who teaches economics and American government at SCPA.
He cited a new “common vision for arts and academics “ and “higher expectations amongst all of the stakeholders.”
“If anything,” Lewis said, “the administration could probably use some positive feedback.”
Brad Gerard, SCPA technical director, has been at the school more than 20 years and also is an alumnus. He has seen lots of ups, downs and changes and is sympathetic. “The team is growing and working hard to improve all aspects of the school,” he said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Simon, the dance teacher, was similarly encouraging, indicating that increased staff means a clearer delineation of duties and better communication. “We really do see forward movement. We look a lot more professional with the work that (external relations officer) Teresa Summe-Haas has done.”
And, relating to Nissley’s concerns about lost trust among benefactors, “this team has brought back a lot more confidence from the outside community,” she said.
“It’s a spectacular place. I think we are moving in a great direction. I would love for people to come see what we’re doing.”
Gerard concluded, “There is no question the administration team is committed to making SCPA a special place. The future of SCPA is going to be a shining star!”
These figures give an indication of how SCPA is doing now:
100 percent graduation rate
87 percent college-bound
Average of $42,000 per student in college scholarship offers
5 students admitted to CCM and 4 to DAAP (8 percent of student body)
Donor base increased from 12 to 98
$204,000 raised (in first 10 months)
2 “full-ride” scholarships to CCM established for SCPA graduates
Join SCPA on Oct. 28 at the Cincinnati Art Museum for a “Soiree Spectacular” in collaboration with Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Opera. Read more below.
– Thom Mariner
Soiree Spectacular ready to take the spotlight
Friday, Oct. 28, 5:30-10 p.m., Faith Auditorium, Cincinnati Art Museum
The School for Creative and Performing Arts, in collaboration with Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Opera and the Cincinnati Art Museum, is staging a night of entertainment to benefit the school. Dubbed the Soiree Spectacular, the evening includes performances by SCPA, Cincinnati Ballet Second Company and Cincinnati Opera. Tickets include complimentary admission to the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Art After Dark Program, cocktails and light bites.
The evening is hosted by Larry and Barbara Kellar and Tom and Diana Klinedinst.
Teresa Summe-Haas, 513-363-8155, or scpa.cps-k12.org