Cincinnati Ballet poised for leap into future

Scott Altman and Victoria Morgan

Scott Altman and Victoria Morgan

By David Lyman

The announcement didn’t come completely out of the blue.

Cincinnati Ballet had been actively searching for an executive director more than two years. Artistic director/CEO Victoria Morgan had been talking about the move for more than six years, soon after she assumed artistic and executive leadership of the company in 2008.

But finally, it happened.

On July 28, Cincinnati Ballet announced it had hired Scott Altman, executive director of Ballet West in Salt Lake City, to take a similar position with Cincinnati Ballet.

It was a big deal, of course. Hiring an executive director is always a big deal. But this was particularly significant for Cincinnati Ballet. From the time Morgan stepped in as artistic director in 1997, the relationship between the artistic and executive branches had been tenuous.

When Morgan was hired, she was untested as an artistic director. Over the next 10 years, the company would go through four executive directors. They all seemed capable, but in the end, none managed to develop a solid working relationship with Morgan.

Could it be that Cincinnati Ballet had such bad luck hiring executives? Or was Morgan the problem?

Kathy Selker, owner/president/CEO of Northlich and former president of Cincinnati Ballet’s board, reflected on Morgan’s leadership style in a 2012 interview.

Victoria Morgan

Victoria Morgan

“What I realized about Victoria is that she is clearly a person who would much rather be in charge and do what needs to be done,” said Selker. “She had clarity about what she thought was important. And she was much more comfortable being held accountable than she was spending all of that energy cajoling and compromising with an executive director. She didn’t have any interest in negotiating and collaborating unless it would enhance the product.”

So in 2008, Morgan approached the board leadership and asked to assume complete control of the company. She was convinced that, even though it would expand her already difficult workload and remove her from day-to-day creative life in the ballet studio, she was the only one who could handle the dual responsibilities.

“I thought she was out of her mind,” recalled ballet board chair Otto M. Budig, in an uncharacteristically blunt assessment of her request. “Fortunately, I was wrong.”

Morgan and Craig Lattarulo, then the company’s director of finance, pored over the budget line by line. They trimmed where they could, renegotiating agreements with dozens of suppliers, from banks to the phone company. Within a year, the $800,000 deficit was erased. It was something none of the four executive directors had been able to accomplish.

So why not continue like that? What’s changed?

“The company is in a different place from when I became CEO,” said Morgan. “We’re much more stable now. Our ticket sales have increased, and our endowment has grown. With an executive director in place, it will take a lot of responsibilities off my plate and give me a chance to put my energies into artistic programming and creative ideas for the ballet.”

Altman brought with him an impressive track record.

He had spent four years as general director of Arizona Opera before moving to Ballet West. In Salt Lake, he oversaw a campaign that erased a

$2.2 million debt, helped negotiate financing for a new 55,000-square-foot home for the ballet and added three satellite locations to Ballet West’s academy.

Look for more of the same here.

Though his first official day on the job was Oct. 1, Altman has leapt into several projects the company has worked on for years.

“I think it’s common knowledge that we have to address our space issues here at the ballet,” said Altman. “We’re shoehorned in. And the demand for what we’re producing here is growing.”

He rattled off a list of successful Cincinnati Ballet ventures, in particular the Otto M. Budig Academy and the various outreach activities.

“All of these pieces of the company are squeezed,” he said. “They are popular and well attended. But they can’t go beyond what they are now without our facility growing.”

Scott Altman

Scott Altman

In mid-October, Altman and members of the ballet building committee met with a group of brokers, realtors and construction firms and presented basic information regarding what the company hopes to accomplish.

There is no design yet, no specific site. Nor is there a deadline for the expansion.

“The good news is that we’re not in a position where we have to move right now,” said building committee chair Julie Shifman. “We still have eight more years left on our lease where we are. But right now, we’re bursting at the seams.”

Shifman said planning for the expansion was well underway before Altman arrived.

“But having Scott here will make it happen more quickly, I think,” she said. “He has incredible enthusiasm for this. Also, he brings this enormous knowledge base of how to lead a company through a construction project.”

Having a new building brings new opportunities for earned income and eases day-to-day pressure on those who work there. But as several ballet companies around the country have found, a new facility can help change a community’s image of a long-existing institution.

“I think our brand at Cincinnati Ballet is a little bit . . . ” Altman stopped briefly, searching for a word that is descriptive, but not provocative. “It’s a little bit quiet,” he continued. “I’d certainly like us to enhance our presence and how great we are in the community. But nationally and internationally, I think we should be on more people’s radar.”

That’s precisely the sort of thing Morgan has been wanting to hear. At last, she has an executive director who she feels is committed to what the company is, what the company does and what it could do in the future.

“I know there will be things we don’t agree on,” she said. “But I trust him to do the same sorts of things he did with other companies. I trust him to help push our company forward and bring the best product to the stage and the best education outreach and with every aspect of what we do.”

That almost certainly will mean more performances and more performers. Again, no specific numbers have been set. But in the near future, we are likely to see the company adding more performances at the Aronoff and more touring appearances.

It recently added another performance of “Frisch’s Big Boy Presents The Nutcracker” at the Aronoff Center. And it was invited to perform “Nutcracker” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in November.

Those are just small examples of what we may see in the not-too-distant future.

“There are lots of possibilities,” said Altman. “Our Beer and Ballet gatherings at our studio are very successful. Why not have them on the West Side, too? Or in Hyde Park? Why not offer performances in other cities in our region, too? There are many, many things we can be doing to let people know that the Cincinnati Ballet is a company they ought to see.”

He’s not prepared to share many specifics. After all, at the time of this conversation, he had only been on the staff five weeks.

“I can tell you that the conversations are happening,” said Altman. “And that there are very powerful directions we expect to be going. We want people to know who we are and what we’re about. We’re committed to the accessibility of this art form.”

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