Tom Strini

Milwaukee Ballet Gets $1 million to think big

By - Oct 1st, 2009 05:33 pm
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The Dohmen Family Foundation has committed to giving the Milwaukee Ballet $1 million over the next five years. Executive Director Dennis Buehler will announce the grant formally at the company’s annual meeting later today (Thursday, Oct. 1) .

The sum matches the MBC’s largest gift, the $1 million that the Stein family gave to fund the company’s Nutcracker in 1998.

The size of the gift is less significant than its purpose and implications. It won’t merely fund operations for a while, or pay for new set and costumes, or “take MBC to the next level” or cover repairs on the ballet’s studio and office building at 5th and National.

“It’s all about creating a sustainable model for supporting our artistic and educational processes,” Buehler said, in a long, frank interview Tuesday.

Buehler believes that the company needs a new operating model and a new facility, and that it will require artistic partners to make everything work. The Dohmen money is aimed at that.

The Milwaukee Ballet's Jodi Peck Center, in Walker's Point.

The Milwaukee Ballet’s Jodi Peck Center, in Walker’s Point.

“This is a tired space, and we’ve vastly outgrown it,” he said, of the Jodi Peck Center. “We’re residing in a space that’s not meeting the needs of the company and our school. “Opportunity can rise from our needs.”

The Milwaukee Ballet School, an important source of income for the company, is  turning students away because of a shortage of studio space.

Buehler thinks that an independent capital campaign is not the best idea. He will use the first half of the Dohmen money to meet with potential partners and run feasibility and needs studies, to see whether it makes sense to share a building, offices, rehearsal space and some business functions. It could also fund preliminary design work.

“We met with foundations and asked if they would get behind us if we pursued a collaborative model,” Buehler said. “The result was overwhelmingly positive. Bill Dohmen liked our business plan and gave a lead gift. People have been talking about collaboration for years. Now, other organizations will know that they can meet with us without being asked for a check. By putting money on the table, Bob Dohmen opened the door to conversation.”

Buehler said that he is in preliminary talks with other groups, but wouldn’t say which ones. The obvious candidates are the dance department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Danceworks, both of which are bursting at the seams with students and performers and in great need of studio space. Rumors about a UWM-Milwaukee Ballet connection have been spreading for some time.

Buehler pointed to First Stage Children’s Theater and the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, which got together in the very successful Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, as a model of how a collaboration might work.

“We’re not a complicated company,” Buehler said. “We need studio and rehearsal space, and back-office functions. We need a music archive. We’re not that different from other organizations.”

Buehler stressed that MBC has no intention of merging with anyone.

“We and any collaborator will maintain our specific identities,” he said. “Everyone fears forced mergers that don’t work. The nature of any collaboration is yet to be defined, but it won’t be just about space. It’s about how we work better and closer.

“There is a real collaborative sense in Milwaukee, right now. We want to take the lead on this, but we don’t want to be the umbrella and everyone else comes in under us. It could be that a year down the road Milwaukee Ballet will be standing here all alone.

“But I don’t believe we will.”

0 thoughts on “Milwaukee Ballet Gets $1 million to think big”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Wow, that’s exciting! It’ll be very interesting to see how they use it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I like the reference to the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center; something similar would be very exciting. I have often longed for Milwaukee Ballet to work more with other dance companies, perhaps this desire for collaboration could be carried into the repertoire also. Whatever happens, it’s heartening news.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Madeleine and Liz,
    Thanks for reading and, especially, thanks for leaving comments. Comments make us more visible to search engines, which drive traffic, which brings in ad $, which allows us to continue to do what we do at ThirdCoast.

    — Tom S.

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