All eyes on Dayton Performing Arts

Dayton Performing Arts Alliance forges its new identity

By Joe Aiello

“ … exciting … innovative … integral … rare … farsighted … courageous … visionary …  collaborative … nothing quite like (it) … a bold endeavor … the latest example of Ohio being a hotbed of innovation in the arts … first of its kind in the nation … unprecedented … energizes our culture for generations to come.”

These are just a few of the comments that have appeared in both the local and national press concerning the new Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, a unique merger of Dayton Ballet, Dayton Opera and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. The legend surrounding the creation began with then DPO Music Director Neal Gittleman posing himself the question, “I wonder if there’s a different model?” Different, that is, from that of each organization standing alone.

As to the nuts and bolts of the actual steps taken in the process, see the sidebar Creation of the DPAA. It’s the what, when, where, who and how.

Here’s the why.

The Ballet, Opera and Philharmonic are all non-profit organizations, that is, they each serve a purpose of public or mutual benefit other than simply pursuing or accumulating profits as businesses do. Which begs the question, “if they don’t chase profits, how do they manage to stay in existence?” How, indeed?

Paul Katz established the Philharmonic in 1933, and sisters Josephine and Hermene Schwarz started the Ballet in 1937 in the middle of the Great Depression. The Opera started in 1960. How well have they done compared to some well-known Dayton for-profit businesses that operated in more or less the same time period? Let’s take a look.

After more than a century, Dayton icon NCR left town in 2009. General Motors, Frigidaire, Delco Products and Chevrolet Motor Division/Truck & Bus are no longer here.

Most left the area as the result of business decisions, which – undoubtedly – in the final analysis had to do with problems impacting their financial status, their bottom line. That’s understandable. It’s how for-profit businesses function; their entire raison d’être is to make a profit. However, some of these businesses had been financial supporters of the arts locally, especially the three Dayton arts organizations in question, and their departures had a decidedly detrimental impact.

All those for-profit companies have gone, but the Ballet, Opera and Philharmonic are still here. Economic conditions in the U.S. have been just as detrimental on them, indeed if not more so, as they’ve been on for-profit businesses, but the three are still serving “a purpose of public or mutual benefit.” How? Why? Because that mandate to be of public or mutual benefit is their raison d’être.

I can state with no small amount of pride that, starting with 2005-2006, for four seasons I was Communications Manager of the Dayton Philharmonic. Somewhere around my third day on the job, I came to the sudden and complete realization of a universal truth: no one takes a job on the staff of a non-profit arts organization because they have aspirations, or intentions, of amassing wealth. Not necessarily great wealth, just wealth of any kind.

They do it because they love the arts.

And what, exactly, is it that they do? Regardless of whether they serve on the staff of a development, marketing, operations, finance, education or administrative department, they create – and support the creation of – opportunities for work for talented artists. For without these artists – dancers, singers, musicians, composers, actors, writers or visual artists – the arts as we know them would eventually disappear.

Non-profit arts organizations might justifiably adopt the motto used in the old MGM logo, you know the one that preceded the start of every film – Leo the Lion roaring in the middle of artwork with the words Metro Goldwyn Mayer underneath and Ars Gratia Artis above. Ars Gratia Artis is Latin for “Art for Art’s Sake.” And, judging by the millions MGM earned and the quality of some – not all – of the films it produced, art wasn’t a constant consideration.

As it is with non-profit arts organizations.

Here’s just one example. Dayton Philharmonic Conductor and Artistic Director Neal Gittleman has won numerous awards for adventurous programming from ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. He’s constantly on the lookout for the works of talented, new classical music composers to feature in concerts during the DPO’s concert season.

Neal’s rationale for doing so is simple and on point: if we don’t encourage these composers, no matter how avant garde or different their music may seem, they will stop composing. Imagine what might have happened to the classical music world if the orchestras and conductors of the time refused to perform the works of such new, and in many instances then avant garde or different, composers as Beethoven, Schumann or Prokofiev.

I’m certain the same rationale holds true for ballet and opera. Who knows from where the next Diaghilev, Balanchine, Nureyev or Pavlova will come? Or the next Pavarotti, Caruso or Callas?

Here’s the best part. The new Dayton Performing Arts alliance will, as a result of its unique, three-in-one configuration, be able to perform more effectively the overriding objective of each of its three entities: to create opportunities for work for talented artists. And to provide the community in which all three exist and operate with the finest arts programming possible. As they are now configured in the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, they have the best possible operational context within which to facilitate artistic collaboration between them.

The Ballet has sometimes performed with the Opera, in such exemplary productions as “Faust” and “La Traviata.” Singers who have appeared with the Opera have also performed with the Philharmonic in works such as Handel’s “Messiah” and Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The Philharmonic has provided the music for all Opera productions. However, the Philharmonic has never before provided the music for a Ballet production. Under the DPAA that will change almost immediately, when – in Ballet’s upcoming production of “The Nutcracker” this December – the Philharmonic will perform Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable score.

Jeremy Trahan, President of the Dayton Ballet Association Board, described both the importance of maintaining the individual identities of the arts organizations while seeking new opportunities for artistic collaboration. “In our planning process,” Trahan noted, “we recognized that a single, stronger governing body could also facilitate artistic collaboration in a way that had not been fully explored in our community, or even nationally. We have the foundation now for very forward thinking in performing arts.”

And the three arts entities themselves aren’t the only ones doing the collaborating. According to Dick DeLon, Dayton Philharmonic Board Chair, “The merger of the Ballet, Opera, and Philharmonic represents some of our best collaborative thinking as a community. We are planning for future success by creating a single management structure and business operating unit, while preserving and promoting the integrity and identity of each of the participating arts groups.”

According to DPAA President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Helfrich, the DPAA provides a “unique opportunity to cross-pollinate.”  “I love the idea of collaborations across artistic disciplines,” Neal Gittleman remarked. He describes the DPAA as a “three-way marriage.” “A ticket sold for a Ballet performance (for example) is not a loss for the Philharmonic,” Gittleman states, “it’s a gain for everyone.”

Dayton Opera Artistic Director Thomas Bankston believes successful operation of the Alliance will require all participants to “check egos at the door.” Each of the three entities has its own way of doing things; its own shared beliefs, values and practices. How these will mesh between and among the various staffers and directors now and into the future is, as yet, unknown. Dayton Ballet Artistic Director Karen Russo Burke agrees, but added “If you don’t have high risk, you’re not going to have a high payoff. I think it will bring us to the next level.”

What does that mean for you and me? If you are a current subscriber of Dayton Ballet or Dayton Opera, or plan to subscribe before their seasons open, you’ll receive a voucher redeemable to any performance of the other art form and to any performance in the Dayton Philharmonic season. When you subscribe to the Philharmonic’s Classical 9 or Family 4 Series, you can use your Wildcard for any performance of the Philharmonic, Ballet or Opera. If you subscribe to any other Philharmonic Series, you’ll receive a free ticket from a select group of Philharmonic, Ballet and Opera performances.

What this allows you to do, on a no-risk basis, is attend the entity you normally do or the one you prefer and enjoy a performance by an entity whose work you might never had experienced if it weren’t for the DPAA.

In a 2005 article I wrote for a local magazine I interviewed David Bohardt, who was then a Dayton mayoral candidate, posing him the question “What is Dayton’s best-kept secret?” His reply: “The range, vitality and quality of the local visual and performing arts communities.”

The three member entities of the DPAA have hit on a unique, exciting and groundbreaking plan for ensuring that the quality and vitality of their own fine performances of dancing, singing and classical music they have been providing for 52, 75 and 79 years respectively will continue far into all of our futures.

And our city’s.

Reach DCP freelance writer Joe Aiello at


Creation of the DPAA

February 2010: National Arts Index runs a study. Findings: the arts need new business models. Cutting back isn’t going to cut it any longer. The solution appears to lie in combining their functions while simultaneously keeping their individual artistic freedom. So, to provide an incentive to not only local arts groups, but to charitable, educational and social service groups as well, the Dayton Foundation, the Dayton Power & Light Foundation and Montgomery County fund a Non-Profit Alliance Support Program.

August 2010:  Executive directors of Dayton Ballet, Dayton Opera and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and their respective board chairs meet to determine if there is interest in creating one entity that would be stronger than the three separate organizations.

January 2011: With funding and season ticket sales slipping and creating yearly budget shortfalls, the three announce they’re studying a possibly unique merger.They need to determine if they can develop a comprehensive partnership and merger plan. In January 2011, the Ballet, Opera and Phil undertake a six-to-eight-month feasibility study with funding support from the Dayton Foundation that begins to develop the business case and business plan for a potential, merged organization. They want to know if and how they could be more efficient and sustainable in a merged operation; they are not looking to eliminate staff.In all,the three arts organizations spend 16 months examining and planning for the merger.

February 2012: Each of the arts organizations’ respective governing boardsindividually approves the Merger Agreement. The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance is the first alliance of metropolitan arts groups of its kind in the nation. It is unique.

Configured as a single management structure and business operating unit, the DPAA nonetheless preserves and promotes the integrity and identity of each of its member organizations, while simultaneously seeking new opportunities for artistic collaboration between them never before fully explored in Dayton or, for that matter, in the U.S.

The DPAA’s structure isn’t all that unique; it’s fairly common in Europe to combine opera, symphony and ballet companies under one organization with one artistic director overseeing the entire thing. However, the DPAA has one executive director and three artistic directors, one for each entity.

The new alliance’s leadership team consists of Paul Helfrich, President and Chief Executive Officer, Dayton Performing Arts Alliance; Thomas Bankston, Artistic Director, Dayton Opera; Neal Gittleman, Conductor and Artistic Director, Dayton Philharmonic; and Karen Russo Burke, Artistic Director, Dayton Ballet. A new Board of Trustees would be created to oversee the new alliance.

The DPAA receives a $500,000 gift from the Harry A. Toulmin, Jr., and Virginia B. Toulmin Fund of The Dayton Foundation and $500,000 from an anonymous donor, with a potential additional grant of $250,000 in its third year of operation.

July 1, 2012:  The Dayton Ballet, Dayton Opera, and Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra became a single entitythe Dayton Performing Arts Alliance.

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A member of the Writers Guild of America, native Daytonian Joe Aiello is the author of numerous screenplays, non-fiction books, novels, TV sitcom pilots, news features, magazine articles, and documentaries. He fills his spare time coaching College, A, AA amateur and semi-pro baseball teams; answering trivia quizzes; and denigrating himself attempting to play golf. Reach Joe at

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