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Dayton arts groups’ merger sets a national precedent

Philharmonic, opera, ballet will have single management structure.

DAYTON — Tough economic times often drive arts organizations across the United States to consider mergers as a way to stretch resources.

Three in Dayton, with combined budgets of $6.5 million and 205 years of history, have now done it in a precedent-setting combination.

National arts executives and consultants say there have been occasional collaborations, partnerships and mergers in the field, but nothing quite like the alliance announced Feb. 3 by the boards of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, Dayton Opera and Dayton Ballet.

The merged groups, the Dayton Performing Alliance, will have a single management structure and three artistic directors.

Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts, called it “a bold endeavor” and “the latest example of Ohio being a hotbed of innovation in the arts.”

Douglas Sonntag, dance program director and performing arts division team leader for the National Endowment for the Arts, said that while it’s common in Europe for opera, symphony and ballet companies to be part of one operation, what’s being planned in Dayton is different.

“One person typically acts as an artistic director in the European model. It’s going to be an interesting experiment to see how one executive director and three artistic directors work together there.”

Dick DeLon, Dayton Philharmonic board chair, said the merger is believed to be the “first of its kind in the nation”.

There will be one board of directors and the organization will be incorporated as a new 501(3)(c) nonprofit organization.

Bruce Thibodeau, president of Arts Consulting Group, which has offices in eight cities and is completing a survey of arts groups that includes a category about exploring mergers, hadn’t heard about the Dayton plan, but said by phone from Boston that “A true merger of three distinct art forms would be somewhat unprecedented.”

Ted Russell, senior program officer for the James Irvine Foundation in San Francisco, said far-reaching arts mergers “are rare in the U.S., although there are certainly parallels among opera companies and symphonies.”

The Sacramento Philharmonic and Sacramento Opera are currently in negotiations to combine. The Chattanooga Symphony and Opera merged in 1985, as did the Utah Opera and Symphony in Salt Lake City in 2002. The Austin Museum of Art merged with another museum there, Arthouse, in late 2011. In Oakland, the East Bay Symphony, the Symphony Chorus and Youth Orchestra have combined to form East Bay Performing Arts.

But mergers are discussed far more often than they are attempted because there are many obstacles.

Kennedy Center president Michael M. Kaiser pointed out several in an often-quoted column for the “Huffington Post” headlined “Merging Isn’t So Easy.”

“Savings on personnel costs are typically relatively modest” because “arts organizations are not known for being overstaffed (and staff members are rarely highly paid)” he wrote.

“Time spent blending staffs and boards and protecting both missions can be immense” and detract from fundraising, he said. “The sense that the weaker organization is losing is also hard to overcome, no matter how much the leadership of the stronger organization tries to treat them fairly. (And there is almost always a stronger and a weaker organization in a merger.)”

Visionaries and community leaders founded what have often been called Dayton’s “big three” traditional arts organizations. Paul Katz established the DPO in 1933. Sisters Josephine and Hermene Schwarz started the Dayton Ballet, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary this year, in 1937. Attorney Don Schweller, clergyman Bill Reiley and director Lester Freedman added the third jewel in the crown by starting the Dayton Opera in 1960.

“Organizations with similar missions occasionally join forces, but beyond that there are obstacles related to the public nature of the arts and the passion that donors and ticket buyers may have for one art form over another,” Thibodeau said.

According to Russell, “More foundations are considering support for such studies. We would consider it.”

“How the individual cultures of the organizations fit together and how the board continue into the future is mission critical,” Russell said. “Branding can be an issue, too. Do we get to keep our name? What happens to the artistic vision? Will there eventually be one leader?”

The Dayton alliance was preceded by a year of planning and consultations with boards, stakeholders and performers affiliated with the three organizations.

“We took extra care,” said Dayton Opera board chair Greg Robinson, who believes the new organization may serve as a model for others to consider.

Dayton Ballet board president Jeremy Trahan suggested that a single stronger organization “could facilitate artistic collaboration in a way that has not been fully explored in our community, or even nationally.”

Kathryn Martin, a senior consultant with The Arts Consulting Group in Los Angeles, said, “There may or may not be financial savings in year one. But just to save money is not the reason to merge. A better reason is to do it to increase the importance of the arts for the community we serve. I congratulate Dayton for taking this step. Now comes the hard part of making it work.”

Greg Robinson, chairman of the Dayton Opera Association Board, said boards and companies’ managers were methodical in their discussions and planning. “We know that merger discussions and mergers are complicated endeavors so we took extra care in how we dealt with each other and dealt with the merger concept,” Robinson said.

Jeremy Trahan, president of the Dayton Ballet Association Board, described both the importance of maintaining the individual identity of the arts organizations while seeking new opportunities for artistic collaboration. “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.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2377 or tmorris@DaytonDailyNews.com.

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