Ella Baff of Jacobs's Pillow

Part One of a Dialogue

By: - Apr 03, 2011

Baff Baff

In the dance community Ella Baff, the CEO and artistic director of the world renowned Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, is regarded as a national treasure. Recently this became official when she was invited to the White House with a group of recipients honored with the National Medal of Arts. In the history of the medal the Pillow is but one of 17 arts organizations, and the only one devoted to dance, to be so honored.

Recently we engaged in a wide ranging hour long discussion of which this is the first installment.

Charles Giuliano I wish that I had more experience and knowledge but I feel in my heart of hearts that dance is the most sublime of all the art forms.

Ella Baff I think there is no contest among art forms they are all important. They all are essential from my view. But I wouldn’t argue with you when you use the words dance and sublime in the same sentence. It is a very very extraordinary art form. You should of course spend lots of time at the Pillow and you can observe classes. Which is a fascinating education. I learn continually. It’s very inspiring to see what the training is.

I used to play music and study music and when you go to a master class with a great artist, in music for example, at Pillow you see that every single day. Dance masters and students in training at the school. It’s one of the great ways to know about dance and the inner workings before it ever gets to the stage. Then of course there are all these fantastic companies we have coming for nearly three months.

CG What was your instrument when you studied music?

EB The piano, violin and the harp. At different times.

CG What was your dance training.

EB Interestingly enough Martha Graham and my family lived in the same building in New York. Maybe there were early indications of where this was all going. I studied a lot of different dance techniques. Jazz, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham. And others. I studied with some of the best teachers in New York. I took ballet class every day and also experimented a lot because I was interested in all dance, all over the world, and every kind. The same kind of eclectic taste I have about music by the way. I would take classes every so often in African dance. Indonesian or Balinese dance or classical Indian dance or so on. I tried out all of these amazing forms of dance from all over the world. I wanted to see what it was like to understand these different styles. I had a very big appetite for the whole subject of dance. And not just one particular kind. I studied contemporary dance and took ballet class every day.

CG Of course that is reflected in the programming at Pillow.

EB The eclectic part?

CG Yes.

EB Absolutely.

CG You have maintained that as a professional commitment as well as an inspiration.

EB Yes. Absolutely. Art is a very big subject. Dance is a very big subject. And there are dance forms and different ways of dancing all over the world. I want to bring a wide variety of dance to Jacob's Pillow’s program so that audiences will have an appreciation for the variety of dance. Not just one kind of dance. It’s how our appreciation for the art form really deepens. People become more adventurous in their taste. They learn not just about a particular dance company but about the culture that the dance company comes from. It’s very dynamic and exciting. I love hearing audiences talk about the performance during intermission. That kind of discussion makes things very very lively.

CG Back in the day in Boston we had Dance Umbrella which we greatly miss. It was how we first encountered Mark Morris, Bill T. Jones and other companies. During graduate school I ran the concession stand for American Repertory Theatre. It was under Doug Schwalbe before Robert Brustein. There was a lot of dance and I recall seeing Twyla Tharp. As an arts and humanities professor I asked how many students went to the theatre, or experienced opera, and dance. A number of students raised their hands for dance. Then I would ask how many of you have seen dance other than The Nutcracker? Most of the hands would drop. For most people dance is The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. It seems so important that your programming of dance has a much broader reach.

EB The same idea could be applied to the other art forms. Maybe it could be argued that just seeing the Mona Lisa is enough. I don’t know. If that’s all you knew about the visual arts it would be a very limited view. If all we knew about music was one Haydn symphony that would be a very limited view of music. The same is true about dance and I am very passionate about this point.

CG To what extent has your programming been effective? What has been the audience response? Do you feel that you are building an audience that will come and see a company they have never heard of? Or a culture they have never been exposed to?

EB Yes I do. Over time people become more adventurous. Many of the things I bring to the Pillow people have not heard of. They have heard of Mark Morris of course. But if you look at the season we are presenting most people have not heard of most of the artists we are presenting. This is true for every festival.

We do introduce a lot of companies and work to audiences. We have a company from Cuba DanzAbierta making its first festival appearance and a company called Carte Blanche from Norway is coming. The soloists and dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. This is a new group of dancers from the great and amazing Paris Opera Ballet. There are a lot of companies and new works that are premiered at the Pillow.

This is a very positive thing because audiences get to try something new. I find that some people just jump right in. Over time people become more adventurous in their exploration of dance. Every year I have had people come up to me and say what they have thought of going to. Whatever that particular company is, whatever company they just saw. They comment that “I’m so glad I did, because I never knew this kind of work existed.” Or have discovered a new artist, or “I thought that before I came here it might be one kind of an experience, but now I found it is completely different from what I thought it would be.”

That is so important to our work as a presenting organization. How do we connect people with new ideas and dance that expands all of our views of that great art form.

CG What are the risks and challenges of putting together a Pillow program particularly in this economy? What kind of budget is involved and what are the concerns of filling seats given the synergy and competition with other Berkshire arts organizations?

EB The challenges are very great right now for the arts. It’s a major issue that impacts all of our organizations. The Pillow and all of our colleagues.

There is tremendous pressure of course to try and sell as many tickets as possible. Also to bring in other sources of revenue as much as possible. If you look at Jacob’s Pillow, for example, the Ted Shawn Theatre has 630 seats, the Doris Duke Theatre has 220 seats, and we have a free outdoor stage.

We have a $5.4 million annual operating budget which includes, and this is very important, The Festival, a professional school, residences, our extensive archives, year round programming, which includes creative development residencies for artists, and programs in the schools in our community. The community needs this very much.

Every activity that we do, and don’t forget that the Pillow has a very large physical site, we have 163 acres and 31 buildings. With that $5.4 million annual operating budget, with the size of our theatres which are relatively small, and one of which is a free outdoor stage, there is not a lot of opportunity for income from ticket sales. It is very important to understand that the income from ticket sales, even if we sell something out, is very very very, I don’t know how many verys I just said, insufficient. This is why there is so much pressure to fundraise. It is with us all the time.

CG Do you have an endowment?

EB Yes we do and I’ll get back to that in a second.

The other thing I want to say about income is that at the Pillow we have, my board and staff, a passionate commitment to making dance accessible to everyone. We are very committed to having an extensive program of free events. As you know that includes the outdoor performances. It includes exhibits and films, the archive, and being able to come into the studio and watch a class. A series of public talks with artists, scholars, and really interesting other people.

We have about 200 events during the festival which we offer for free. We don’t want to charge for these things. We feel that it is very important as a public service to bring people to dance no matter what their economic situation is.  Some people cannot afford tickets. So that is very important to us. It just means that we have to raise money to support it. It is very important to us that we provide opportunities for artists to create new work. We have creative development residencies in the off festival months. And it is very important to us that we bring dance into the local schools.

About the endowment we began one several years ago. As you may not be surprised to learn, like a lot of other endowments in the world, it is not producing any income at the moment and that is unfortunate.

CG What is the level of the endowment?

EB It is currently valued at $6.5 million.

CG A normal rule of thumb would be that you can spend about 5% a year.

EB If you’re getting interest from it.

CG So you are not drawing down anything from the endowment at this point?

EB No. We look forward to a time when the economy returns. And we’ll start drawing interest from it. We have not been able to do that for three years now. It’s a very bad situation for many sectors. For the arts it is very very difficult.

CG Of the $5.4 million budget what percent is covered by ticket sales?

EB About $1.9 million. So we have to fund raise for the rest.

CG What percent of that is grants?

EB I am so sorry Charles I should have that at my fingertips. But I don’t want to misspeak. We can get you the figures if you need them.

CG That’s fine. Let’s just talk generically. We all know, for example, that the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities have been taking a terrible beating. What does it mean when you reach out to the traditional, established sources and foundations? Like everyone else they also have had their struggles over the past few years. It seems to be a shrinking resource for everyone.

EB You’re absolutely right and everyone is looking for a new source of funding because the traditional sources, which incidentally have never been that bountiful to begin with, The National Endowment for the Arts has always been scraping by. So everyone is looking for new sources for support. What has become glaringly obvious to arts organizations is to have individuals come forward and support the organizations which they feel very passionate about.

Interview Part Two