‘Math guy’s’ fiscal leadership a key in growth of Cincy Shakes
By Cindy Starr
Dick Westheimer saw himself as analytical and data-minded, a “math guy,” a businessman. He loved live theater, but had not read or seen a Shakespeare play since high school. So what was it about Cincinnati Shakespeare Company that resonated in his civic-minded heart?
“It was a light that was turned on in Race Street,” Westheimer said. “That’s a metaphor I use. In the 1990s and aughts, there were few other lights on at night in that corner of downtown except Mullane’s next door. I was grieving for the collapse of the vibrancy of the core of my city, and here was a place that had the lights on four nights a week.
“I liked that. And I liked the people who were streaming to it. It was a fairly diverse audience, especially agewise. It was an inexpensive ticket, and it attracted a cross-section of folks coming to see the theater, whether they were graybeards and gray hairs or 16-year-olds with their dates. It was one of the few places that was alive with people who were interested in coming into this very slow corner of downtown.”
In 2000 a fellow member of the Urban Appalachia Council board asked if Westheimer would consider joining Cincinnati Shakespeare’s board. Westheimer said yes, “not so much because of the arts, as the civic vitality piece.”
In the 17 years since, Westheimer has participated in one of the most memorable civic efforts of a life steeped in them.
Carrying on a family tradition of hands-on engagement, he helped guide Cincinnati Shakespeare Company through difficult times and into an era where, he says, “rock stars” now manage a mature cultural gem.
Cincinnati Shakespeare, which opens its 24th season in the gleaming new Otto M. Budig Theater in Over-the-Rhine, has accomplished the goal Westheimer set at his first meeting as board chair in 2002: “To build an organization that will attract board leadership that exceeds all of us at the table.”
The process took longer than Westheimer hoped, but he and the Cincinnati community have been enriched by the process. And, in this process, Westheimer fell in love with Shakespeare.
Westheimer, one of three children of the late Ruth and Robert Westheimer, formed his citizen compass early. “Conversations at the dinner table were almost always around some engagement project my parents either shared or were consulting each other about, from my mother’s work at social service centers to their work with Community Chest,” Westheimer said. “They were very interested in seeing if they could contribute to organizations that needed help, and I’d say three-fourths of the time they committed materially to organizations they also committed their time.”
Westheimer believes philanthropy, which typically involves writing a check, is but one component of a more immersive civic engagement, exemplified by his mother’s act of “writing checks at the hardware store to buy mops and buckets to coordinate a youth employment program out of her basement.”
Summer jobs for Westheimer reflected this spirit of altruism; he worked for Cincinnati Union Bethel and performed data gathering and analysis in the 1970s for the Head Start program. Westheimer has kept his sleeves rolled up ever since, frequently in consultation with his sisters, Sallie Westheimer and Ann Williams. He taught in the Cincinnati Public Schools for 20 years before taking over his family’s financial services office. His past involvements include The Greater Cincinnati Foundation and Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio. He is currently chair of the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance board, and serves on MORTAR’s board.
Westheimer embraced Cincinnati Shakespeare not only because of the light it shone downtown, but also throughout the schools, where professional actors brought to life the theater’s magic. “I had a sense that they were making a difference in a comprehensive way when they went into the schools,” Westheimer said. “All this was compelling to me.”
During his tenure as board chair (2002-2005), which he describes as “a very challenging time in the company,” Westheimer‘s personal contribution, he said, involved bringing a hard-nosed business sense to the operation. “We were rigorous business planners. We improved our bookkeeping and accounting. We had to be very disciplined, with good governance, good accounting, good business planning, and the art would have to take care of itself. And we had a relentless focus on our mission. We rewrote our mission in 2003 and printed it on the top of every board agenda. It was on every administrator’s desk, on the walls.
Without a dozen or so individuals who were at the table, “there would be no Cincinnati Shakespeare Company” today, said Westheimer. Those individuals include Mark Rubin (current board treasurer), Brian Isaac Phillips (artistic director), Rebecca Bromels (now a faculty member at CCM), Jay Woffington (executive director) and “the real philanthropists, who said, ‘OK I’ll just write a check.’”
Cincinnati Shakespeare’s progress crystallized in a little-known demographic fact: actors, would-be actors and administrators moved to Cincinnati – perhaps 100 over a 20-year period – forming a new creative class. “It happened fairly quickly,” Westheimer said. “You started seeing our players on stage at the Playhouse, at Ensemble Theatre. Two members of our company moved on to become faculty at UC on the administrative side. I saw mortgages happening. When you see actors or arts administrators who move to town and can make their way as homeowners in your city, you know something is going right.”
Westheimer knew he and his team would have succeeded in his “dream of building an organization that exceeds me” when he could step away. Although he remains on the board, he says that time arrived a few years ago, allowing him to move on to the next act in his civic life.
“I have learned so much about working with people, about organizational vitality, about the art, yes, the arts administration,” Westheimer said. “We, collectively, with many people who are still there, have made something work for the community and made it work for artists. And that’s been the real treat for me.”
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