News out of southwest Ohio finds a regional performing arts organization successfully tapping donor support for its bold expansion plans. Local patrons Margaret and Michael Valentine committed $10 million dollars to the rapidly expanding Cincinnati Ballet’s new $30 million home. The center will be named the Cincinnati Ballet Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance in recognition of the Valentines’ gift, the largest in the ballet’s history.

“It was evident that the Cincinnati Ballet was growing and that their location was not going to be able to sustain the ballet in a manner in which it needed to be sustained,” Margaret Valentine said. “(This project) would be one that would benefit the entire Cincinnati community.”

Valentine’s comment underscores why, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of regional “highbrow performing arts organizations are greatly exaggerated. Scott Altman, the ballet’s president and CEO, made the case that the organization’s expansion plans would advance its mission to “enrich, expand and excel in the art of dance through performance” and provide “impactful education and community engagement,” and the Valentines, whose support for the ballet goes back over a decade, signed on.

I’ll take a closer look at Margaret and Michael Valentine momentarily. But first, I’d like to explore the Cincinnati Ballet’s impressive growth across the past five years, as it flies in the face of conventional wisdom which paints a dire picture for struggling regional performing arts organizations—think opera, ballet, and orchestras—not located in the usual coastal hubs.

“We Cannot Accommodate Demand”

Make no mistake: Performing arts organizations are facing profound operational, financial, and fundraising challenges. Loyal “old world” donors are giving way to millennials and Gen Xers who demand a more immersive and impactful arts experience. With box office revenues lagging, many organizations now rely more on philanthropy than earned income, while others grapple with the threat of disruptive labor unrest. Closer to home, the Cleveland Ballet folded and re-opened as a smaller company four years ago.

The challenges are so acute that in 2015, the Wallace Foundation launched its six-year Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative. The grant program selected 26 regional arts organizations and awarded them a total of $52 million with the goal of engaging, developing, and retaining new audiences. In 2017, the foundation highlighted Austin Ballet’s efforts to expand audiences for unfamiliar works.

A piece by Steve Sucato on Dance/USA’s website takes a closer look at the Cincinnati Ballet’s educational and community engagement programs. The strategy here is a simple one: engage families and communities and turn them into fans. “I think getting people moving is the answer to getting people hooked,” said director of education Julie Sunderland. “The connections we create are for the betterment of Cincinnati Ballet but are really for the betterment of our society. I want you to come see the ballet, but I also want to find that person who learns from an arts-integrated lesson in a way they couldn’t otherwise.”

Cincinnati Ballet attendance grew by 21 percent between its 2015-2016 and 2018-2019 season as the ballet increased the number of performance offerings year-over-year. Moreover, the region has enthusiastically embraced to the ballet’s educational and community engagement offerings, such as Ballet Moves, which offers classes for students with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism. According to the ballet, 92 percent of children’s division classes at its Otto M. Budig Academy are at capacity or have waiting lists.

“We cannot accommodate demand due to full classes,” president Altman said. “Quite simply, the organization has outgrown its current space.” The new ballet center—a 57,000-square-foot building with eight studios versus the current 36,000-square-foot building, which houses four studios—“will be an integral arts destination for the community and the region.”

Cincinnati Ballet expects to greatly expand educational and community engagement programming at the new center. With more dedicated space, for instance, Ballet Moves hopes to serve seniors, those with dementia, depression and anxiety, and other physical impairments. The Cincinnati Ballet Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance is scheduled to begin programming in Summer 2021.

Archetypal Regional Donors

Margaret and Michael Valentine both attended the University of Cincinnati (UC) and married after graduating. Michael Valentine and a partner designed the first radar detector to use superheterodyne technology—a method of designing and building wireless communications or broadcast equipment—in 1976. Today, the Valentines run Valentine Research, a privately held company based in suburban Cincinnati that designs, manufactures, and markets consumer electronics.

Margaret Valentine is a trustee of UC. In 2016, she and Michael donated $6.5 million to the university’s Fifth Third Arena renovation. The couple has provided support to UC’s engineering department, while Margaret funded the first fully endowed scholarship for a woman in sports in 2014. The Valentines are the largest athletics donors in UC history.

A lifelong fan of ballet, Margaret’s support for Cincinnati Ballet dates back to 2008, when the organization considered eliminating live musical performances to reduce operating costs. Margaret stepped in to make sure that didn’t happen. “Without live music, the ballet would seem less rich,” she told the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Sharon Coolidge. “Recorded music would not have been the same.”

The Valentines have funded ballets including the Nutcracker, King Arthur’s Camelot, and a recent co-production with Ballet West of Nicolo Fonte’s Carmina Burana. The couple also established a Cincinnati Ballet touring endowment, as well as financial support of Cincinnati Ballet’s Live Music Fund for professional productions.

Margaret also forged a close bond with the ballet’s artistic director Victoria Morgan. This relationship inspired her to help the ballet with the construction of its new home. “I always enjoyed going to the ballet,” she told Coolidge. “But at the beginning, I didn’t see that I would be this involved. Part of it was meeting Victoria. She is so inspiring…and she’s such an asset to Cincinnati, and under her leadership, the ballet has really prospered.”

The Arts “Ripple Effect”

The ballet’s fundraising drive, which began a little more than a year ago, also received a significant gift from local philanthropists Rhonda Sheakley and her husband Larry A. Sheakley. The couple worked with or provided financial support to a litany of local organizations, including Lighthouse Youth & Family Services, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. Cincinnati Ballet will name the largest company studio the Rhonda and Larry A. Sheakley Premier Studio in acknowledgment of their gift.

As the Sheakleys’ support suggests, the Cincinnati Ballet enjoys the benefit of being located in a city with a strong philanthropic climate, a point I underscored a couple of years ago when looking at an estate gift from local patrons Alice and Carl Bimel to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the fundraising success of ArtsWave, the region’s local arts agency and a sponsor for Cincinnati Ballet’s 2019-2020 season.

A huge supporter of local dance organizations, ArtsWave funds Cincinnati Ballet’s “CincyDance!” program, which provides dance classes and dance attire to over 1,800 third graders. “It is imperative that we create pathways for students of all abilities and backgrounds to express themselves through dance,” said Cincinnati Ballet director of education and community engagement Carolyn Guido Clifford.

In 2015, ArtsWave President and CEO Alecia Kintner spoke to Inside Philanthropy about its new strategy, “The Blueprint for Collective Action for the Arts.” The vision, Kintner said, “was less about appreciating personal experiences with the arts and instead about the ripple effect of benefits that the public associated the arts with—in particular, a more vibrant regional economy and more socially connected people.”

The vision has resonated across the greater Cincinnati region. In April, ArtsWave announced it raised $12.3 million from over 400 companies and 40,000 individuals as part of its 2019 community campaign, making it the largest community campaign for the arts in the nation in total contributions and number of donors.

In related news, check out our take on Donna and Donald Baumgartner’s $10 million donation to the Milwaukee Ballet’s $26 million capital campaign to support the company’s Baumgartner Center for Dance.

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