Client Stories: arts and culture

Below are just a few stories from the many clients we've helped over the years.

Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is an international icon, one of the most outstanding and well-recognized dance organizations in the world. Founded in 1958 by the visionary choreographer Alvin Ailey to bring African American cultural expression and the modern dance tradition to the world, the organization now comprises two professional companies that tour internationally, a leading professional training school that works with 3,500 aspiring dancers each year, an Extension program offering dance and fitness programs to the general public, and a boutique. Led by legendary dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison for more than 20 years, the company is now headed by Artistic Director Robert Battle.

In 2007, as Ailey approached its 50th anniversary, leadership identified that the Foundation’s approach to engaging patrons and audiences was becoming dated and out of step with increasingly sophisticated electronic marketing and communications techniques. It needed a new, cross-department approach to technology and social media to increase and retain audiences and make it easier for people to take advantage of more Ailey programs.

The plan for change capital

With $1 million in change capital from NFF's Leading for the Future (LFF) program, Ailey undertook a three-part initiative to transform its use of technology and social media.


On 1,600 acres, the abandoned Bethlehem Plant of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation is the nation's largest brownfield development, located in a severely distressed area in Bethlehem, PA. ArtsQuest, an organization dedicated to arts and culture in the Lehigh Valley, is partnering with the City of Bethlehem to construct an arts, culture and education campus on 4.5 acres within the brownfield. ArtsQuest approached NFF to supply a $10 million New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC) allocation, as part of the overall NMTC transaction structure for the SteelStacks project. For ArtsQuest, the beneficial interest rates and terms of the NMTC loan made possible a mission-driven project that might not have been feasible under any other financing structure, and will allow them to have equity in the project after seven years.

Center Theatre Group

CTG is the largest theater producer and presenter in Los Angeles and among the largest in the country.  Comprised of three theater venues – the Ahmanson, Mark Taper and Kirk Douglas – the organization presents as many as 18 productions each year, ranging from experimental new work to Broadway classics. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located in Culver City, approximately ten miles from CTG’s downtown theaters. With 317 seats, it is the newest and most intimate of CTG’s performance spaces. Since opening in 2004, it has been viewed by CTG as a kind of laboratory for new approaches to programming and audience engagement.

In 2007, CTG was exploring ways that it could experiment with its production model to respond to the needs and interests of a wider range of playwrights and artists, while simultaneously attracting the next generation of theatregoers. The theater’s subscription model – which required fixing a schedule of shows 6-12 months in advance of production and following tight production protocols – limited opportunities to experiment with more adventuresome work and test more interactive audience experiences. CTG posited that a more dynamic approach to producing theater and engaging ticket-buyers could help the theater build its audience of the future.

Achieving financial viability for the Kirk Douglas Theatre was never CTG’s goal. From the start of the program, leaders at CTG understood that the Kirk Douglas would always require subsidy from CTG and funders. In inviting CTG into the Leading for the Future (LFF) program, NFF and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation were investing in the idea that the future vibrancy of the institution would depend on building a younger audience base as a source of more reliable earned revenue for the long term. CTG’s experiment and lessons learned would generate important information as the theater considered possible long-term shifts in its business model.

Cunningham Dance Foundation

In 2007, as Merce Cunningham approached his 90th birthday and the inevitable end of his extraordinarily creative and prolific life as one of the world’s greatest choreographers, he and the leadership of the Cunningham Dance Foundation (CDF) explored various options for the future. Together they crafted The Legacy Plan, a bold and unprecedented program to preserve Cunningham’s legacy.

This was the most radical transformation of a business model that emerged from the pool of candidates for NFF’s Leading for the Future (LFF) program. It appealed for its originality, ambition and timeliness.

The plan for change capital

With change capital from the LFF program, Cunningham Dance Foundation undertook a four-part Legacy Plan that called for:

  • Preserving Merce’s legacy. This work included: creating “dance capsules” – digital packages of material that capture the creation and performance of Cunningham’s most important works; transferring the Merce Cunningham Archive to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; and the Walker Art Center’s acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s collection of sets and costumes.
  • Conducting a final international tour to showcase a range of important works, performed by the last company to be trained by Cunningham himself.
  • Providing transition stipends and health insurance to the final company members and staff to recognize their contributions to Cunningham’s artistic vision, encourage them to stay with the company through the final tour, and help offset their expenses while they transitioned to new employment after CDF closed.
  • Closing the organization without outstanding obligations and transferring remaining assets to the Merce Cunningham Trust, established to hold and administer the rights to Cunningham’s work and endowed separately from CDF. 

Double Edge Theatre

Double Edge Theatre’s mission is to create a ‘living culture’ by developing the highest quality of original theatre performance, based on the long-term imaginative work of the actor and his/her interaction with the communities in which the work takes place, and by cultivating at its home in Ashfield, MA – the Farm – a permanent center of performance, training, research, and cultural exchange. The goal is to elevate the creation and understanding of artistic expression and cultural mutuality between artists and their communities.

"The [Systems Replacement Plan]…has provided our company with vital information and the tools to not only plan and implement but also to gain support from other organizations and funding groups who have been impressed by the level of detail being pulled from that report.

The company's facilities plans have been following the yearly planner that we laid out together and we have of added and created new time lines for either new projects or unforeseeable repairs.

The effect on the company and community at large over the past two years has been enormous. Our Operating Budget is growing at a rate of $100,000 a year and the sheer number of programs and people coming through our doors and often staying (as a student or artist) is also increasing rapidly. Much of this success is due to that report which has been the basis for my planning work regarding the facilities."

 Adam Bright Technical Director, Double Edge Theatre

Jacob’s Pillow Dance

Jacob’s Pillow is one of the most renowned centers of dance in the world, a unique destination for choreographers, dancers and dance lovers, nestled in the Berkshire Hills for over 80 years. The Pillow nurtures dance of all genres, enabling choreographers from all over the world to present their work to devoted audiences and first-time dance-goers through 300+ events during its three-month annual summer festival. The Pillow also trains professional-track dancers at The School at Jacob’s Pillow, has an Intern Program and a Scholars and Fellows Program, offers a range of community dance classes, and presents a variety of free educational programs, talks and discussions for the public. A National Historic  Landmark and recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the Pillow preserves the buildings and grounds of this dance mecca, sustains an extraordinary archive of dance photography, oral histories, and ephemera, and presents a variety of photography, art exhibits, films, talks and discussions throughout each Festival. The Pillow’s year-round programs include a Creative Development Residency Program and commissions for artists to create new work; research in the Archives by scholars, artists and educators; a Curriculum in Motion program in local schools; and co-presentations with MASS MoCA. 

In 2008, when NFF's Leading for the Future (LFF) program launched, the Pillow had just completed its 75th anniversary season. This cause for celebration was also a time for reflection and thinking about the future of the organization. How would this treasured dance center located on a c.1790 farm keep pace with advances in technology in order to stay relevant to its existing audience and reach new offsite audiences around the world? Were there ways to transfer its remarkable archival assets to the web and to earn revenue by making this material accessible to diverse audiences? How could the Pillow extend its legacy of artistic risk-taking within the digital sphere? What investments in capacity would be necessary to support a broader constituency, sustain an institutional brand, bring the public closer to dance and benefit the field?

The result of the Pillow’s planning was a new concept for the organization to develop and launch a Virtual Pillow. At its physical site, the Pillow presents on three performance stages. Virtual Pillow would be a fourth “stage” that would build an e-audience and new donor base. Virtual Pillow was envisioned as a combination of behind-the-scenes investments to digitize important portions of the Pillow’s rare and extensive archives and free public offerings to make the organization’s programs and online community more visible, interactive and dynamic on the web. 

When early planning for Virtual Pillow revealed an uncertain time horizon for financial return, the Pillow’s leadership prioritized a simultaneous investment in building the organization’s “revenue engine.” They deemed strengthening the organization’s marketing and development infrastructure essential to generating new earned and contributed income that would support the Pillow’s virtual and physical presence.

Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre

NFF and Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre have enjoyed a decades-long working relationship to build financial capacity at Ballet Theatre in support of the creation of first-class dance. Over time, NFF engaged with Ballet Theatre on several projects in both a lending and consulting capacity as the organization has grown and made strategic choices. This extensive relationship has included services such as loans, business analyses, quantifying the long-term financial needs of Ballet Theatre’s facility, alignment of drivers-based financial projections and strategy, and development of a results-based management approach.

"We have had the good fortune to work with NFF intensively over the past 17 years. During that time, NFF has broadened its services to the sector by developing many new and robust financial management products. However the one thing about NFF that has not changed is their commitment and ability to meet clients where they are. When this organization started to work with NFF, the organization had posted operating deficits for many years in a row, audits were issued with ongoing concerns, and the future looked shaking at best. Seventeen years later, the organization is consistently posting operating surpluses and working to build a robust balance sheet. I can not speak highly enough about NFF. NFF staff are true capacity builders and leave organizations with an enhanced understanding of the role of finance in service to mission."  Scott Fraser Managing Director

Misnomer Dance Theater

Misnomer Dance Theater made its entrance onto the New York City dance scene in 1998 and quickly gained attention from critics and audiences for its distinct approach to movement and its creative partnerships with an unusual array of entities including Björk, the Sundance Channel, Apple and Danish Dance Theater. The company rapidly found an international audience and toured to 14 countries while mounting regular seasons in New York.

The economics of small dance companies are notoriously fragile, and Misnomer’s founder and artistic director, Chris Elam, understood from the beginning that the company needed creative approaches to generating revenue. In addition to building a base of interest among nonprofit presenters and corporate clients, in 2007 Chris began exploring an idea that could strengthen the company’s business model while also addressing a larger challenge in the field of dance and the performing arts. His concept was to create an online platform to facilitate audience engagement with dance and other art forms, enabling artists and audiences to connect with each other easily and in unconventional ways.

A participant in the Leading for the Future (LFF) program, Misnomer approached NFF program with compelling questions: Could such a platform be built under the auspices of the dance company, creating a service for which both artists and audiences might pay modest fees? Can this service generate a reliable recurring revenue source for Misnomer and an innovative new approach to audience engagement and revenue generation for the field?

National Black Arts Festival

Note to Reader: As NFF went to press, NBAF began a facilitated restructuring process aimed at preserving its mission while establishing a more viable business model.

The National Black Arts Festival was started in 1988 with the goal of showcasing art and artists of African descent from around the world. Celebrating its 25th anniversary, NBAF now presents artists in the performing, visual and literary arts to thousands of people who attend its annual event in mid-summer, and reaches many more with its presenting and educational programs during the year. NBAF presents the work of artists from the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and Latin America, using a variety of indoor and outdoor venues around the city of Atlanta. The Festival presents young and upcoming talent as well as established artists, and has produced shows involving artists, such as Wynton Marsalis, Bill T. Jones, Youssou N’Dour, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Tito Puente, Harry Belafonte and hundreds more.

In 2007, on the verge of its 20th anniversary, the Festival was considering its future options. Its artistic program had received strong praise for many years, but its financial picture was not so rosy. While NBAF had built a strong national reputation and its audiences were loyal and growing, neither the Festival’s ticket revenue nor its private contributions were keeping pace with costs. For many years, the Festival had been one of the few presenters of artists from the African diaspora, but a growing number of presenters were now offering similar content and the Festival’s market niche was shifting. In addition, new technological developments, an increasingly media-savvy public, and a growing audience of young people interested in world culture suggested there might be substantial online markets for the Festival’s programs, its archive of outstanding concerts and its educational programming. 

NBAF’s concept for the Leading for the Future (LFF) program was to reassert its leadership role in the presenting field by developing NBAF365, a unique online platform that would situate the Festival as the premier global year-round resource for material about the African cultural diaspora. Through this strategy, NBAF intended to create a new model of audience building and revenue generation, and thus, a more stable financial future. 

Ping Chong + Company

Ping Chong produces theatrical works addressing important cultural and civic issues. The company was founded in 1975 by leading theatrical innovator Ping Chong to create works of theater and art that explore the intersection of race, culture, history, art, media and technology, and issues of social justice. It produces original works by an ensemble of affiliated artists, and productions range from small-scale oral history projects to large cinematic multi-disciplinary productions featuring puppets, performers and full music and projection scores.

Since founding the company, Ping Chong has worked on a variety of works ranging in size and scale, including community-specific theater that examines the experiences of people living between cultures, those with disabilities, new immigrants, and refugee youth.

In 2007, Ping Chong decided to focus on larger-scale projects for a period of years. The community-specific projects, gathered under the program title Undesirable Elements, had been gaining national recognition, and company leaders were interested in continuing to build this program to provide Ping Chong with financial support and development time to pursue other ambitious artistic projects. The Company wondered whether Undesirable Elements could expand the reach of the organization, empower collaborating artists and provide a consistent base of artistic activity and financial stability.  

SITI Company

SITI Company is an award-winning ensemble-based theater company focused on creating new work, training theater artists and collaborating with performing artists internationally. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2012, the company was founded by Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki to revitalize contemporary theater in the U.S. through international cultural exchange and collaboration with artists in dance, music, art and performance. SITI is also well known for its unique training programs, which are based on a dialogue between the Suzuki Actor Training Method and the Viewpoints improvisational techniques rooted in contemporary dance. Through these training programs, the company has worked with hundreds of theater artists around the globe.

In 2007, after 15 years of extensive touring and the refinement of its successful educational methodology, SITI Company was re-thinking its fundamentals. The ensemble members wanted to tour less and establish a more extensive training program without giving up opportunities to create new work or collaborate with diverse artistic partners. SITI believed that it could both re-formulate its business model and propel its artistry by establishing a New York season, creating an MFA program in partnership with an academic institution, and boosting its annual fundraising capacity. The New York season might not be a money-maker, but the other two strategies had the potential to cover losses and create ongoing reliable revenue. SITI’s concept was risky, but it held great potential and offered an ideal opportunity for the application of change capital.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Steppenwolf stands at the forefront of American professional theater. Since its founding by Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry in 1974 (when none were yet 21 years old), the ensemble theater has been a dynamic creative force propelling the careers of countless playwrights and theater artists and contributing in diverse ways to the development of the theater field itself. Its roster of famous ensemble members (including Sinise, Joan Allen, Tracy Letts, John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf, among many others) and its history of groundbreaking productions (such as True West, Grapes of Wrath, and August: Osage County), combined with its pioneering work in theater education and talent-spotting, make Steppenwolf an important field leader and a herald of new developments in all aspects of theater work.

In 2007, when the NFF's Leading for the Future (LFF) program was announced, Steppenwolf was exploring connections between young audiences and young playwriting talent. The increasing age of its subscriber base and the perception that younger audiences (the Millennial generation in their 20s and early 30s) were being lured away from live theater by technology and electronic media prodded Steppenwolf to consider the question: Could an expanded and more dynamic partnership with younger artists also increase and engage Steppenwolf’s younger audiences?

The Wooster Group

The Wooster Group is an ensemble of artists who create, produce, and perform experimental theater and media in New York City and on national and international tours. Since its founding in 1975, the company has achieved global recognition for its work under the visionary direction of Elizabeth LeCompte.

Fully capitalizing on this reputation had been a long-time challenge for The Wooster Group when it applied to the Leading for the Future (LFF) program in 2007. For some time, the company had been unable to take maximum advantage of the rising demand for performances without sacrificing its distinctive development process or the unique quality of its artistic productions. Touring income was volatile, subject to vicissitudes in the economy, rising freight and airfare costs, and growing reductions in government funding for European presenters.

The Wooster Group recognized the need to invest in programs and new ways of operating that would result in a more reliable base of revenue to support its work in an increasingly fluid environment. At the same time, leadership understood the financial imperative of building long-term savings so the company could act quickly on opportunities before revenue was secured, and absorb temporary shortfalls from funding losses or inherently riskier performances and partnerships.