Philharmonic, ballet, opera combine

It’s a new day for the arts in Dayton. The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, Dayton Ballet and Dayton Opera are officially united.

The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, a new nonprofit performing arts organization, started operation July 1. In addition to establishing a more solid professional administration for groups that have been forced to cut staff in recent years, the hope is the new alliance will usher in an exciting period of collaborative and innovative arts programming.

This season, for the first time in decades, audiences can look forward to “The Nutcracker Ballet” with live music provided by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. Patrons who purchase a season subscription to the Ballet or Opera will be offered a free voucher to the Philharmonic and one to the other art form. If you purchase a Philharmonic Classic Nine series or a Family Four-Pack, you can now use your “wild card” for opera or ballet.

According to Alliance board chair Jeremy Trahan, the new organization is one-of-a-kind.

“We’re positively the first in the nation to do this,” said Trahan, who formerly chaired the Ballet board. “Word has been getting out and we’ve seen news articles from other cities facing financial crises that mention what’s happening in Dayton. They’re watching what Dayton is doing.”

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Over the past two years, the three arts organizations with rich individual histories have struggled to find ways to create a solid future together when faced with dwindling financial and administrative resources. Ultimately that required the dissolution of three community arts boards, the creation of a new 39-member board of directors, and the juggling of jobs and assignments.

Paul Helfrich, the newly appointed president and CEO of the Alliance, who formerly served as president of the DPO, says those who initially had turf issues were eventually able to keep their focus on the arts and what was best for the long term. Ballet and Opera board members, concerned about merging with an organization that was $250,000 in debt (the DPO, at the time) found it possible to move ahead once they learned that those who had extended loans had agreed to forgive them. There is currently no debt on any of the organization’s books.

“Everyone has been open,” says Helfrich. “We all knew we needed to change, all three boards realized things would have to be different in the future. The economic base that allowed our organizations to grow and flourish has changed.”

The new organization with its staff of 22 will be housed in the Metropolitan Arts Center in the present Culture Works location and will move later this summer. Production and technical staffers will remain at the Schuster Center.

Each of the individual arts organizations will retain its own identity and donors can still designate gifts to their favorite group. Each group will be led by an artistic director: Neal Gittleman for the Philharmonic, Karen Russo for the Ballet, Thomas Bankston for the Opera.

Ohio Arts Council Executive Director Julie Henahan says there is reason to believe the merger will turn out well. This week, her organization granted $142,947 to the new Alliance for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

She believes the greatest challenge may be the merging of different cultures. “Every organization has its own way of doing things, it’s own culture,” she explains.

“ It’s like being in one family for a while and then marrying into another.”

Still, she said Dayton did it right — combining careful thought and planning with expertise on both the staff and board levels.

“These arts organizations are all fortunate to have an extremely supportive community, love and admiration coming their way all the time,” she says.

Local backing has come not just from well-wishers, but from big-dollar donors as well. The Dayton Foundation has pledged $500,000 to the new organization; an anonymous donor has given $750,000. Those gifts will fund the transitional expenses as well as programming. The Alliance budget for the 2012-2013 season is $7.6 million.

Henahan says given the financial challenges facing businesses and nonprofit organizations throughout Ohio, entities must look for ways to continue to provide services in a more economical and efficient manner. Dayton, she says, has shown real foresight.

Says Henahan: “It’s the wave of the future.”

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2440 or mmoss@coxohio.com.

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