She keeps Tulsa Ballet's doors open
BY MATT GLEASON World Scene Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011
2/17/11 at 7:05 AM
The Tulsa Ballet needs it. Amy Miller delivers it. That's her job as development director. She develops relationships with corporations, foundations and individual donors. And she does it without fear.
"How to ask for money for some people is really scary," she said. "It's just really not that scary. It's not asking. It's more like offering an opportunity."
Essentially, Miller tells donors: "Look at what we can help you do with your money." The proof is on the stage and in the ballet's Center for Dance Education.
Ticket sales can't fully support the ballet, which has roughly a $5 million annual operating budget. Ticket sales account for 35 percent of its annual revenue, Miller said.
So that's where Miller comes in to help pay the bills. And by keeping those bills paid, the ballet is able to be solvent, as well as have philanthropic programs such as Leaps Ahead and Leaps in Motion, which teach ballet to boys and girls in "at-risk" Tulsa schools.
Marnie Taylor, president and CEO of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits, explained the plight of the ballet, and other nonprofits like it.
"Because of the down economy, funds are even more limited than usual," she said. "There are 19,000 nonprofits in Oklahoma. That's a lot of organizations you have competing with you for the same funds and resources."
Of course, Miller is not alone in her pursuit of cash. The ballet pirouettes with help from a cast of volunteers, paid staff, board and advisory board members, among others.
Jackie Kouri, for instance, was the ballet's board president for two years, and she led the ballet's $17.3 million fundraising campaign.
Kouri said of Miller, "Amy takes an extraordinarily difficult job and makes it look easy - and that is a talent not many people have."
Miller, a married mother of a son and daughter, grew up in Enid, where she spent second grade as a ballerina, but gave it up for jazz dance.
Before arriving at the ballet, her only exposure to ballet had been a student production of "The Nutcracker" in Enid.
After Miller earned a master's degree in art history from Ohio State University, teaching was a possibility. Instead, she opted for a role as development and marketing director of Bartlesville's Elder Care.
"I was a little bit over my head," she said. "But I faked it pretty well."
Two years at Elder Care led Miller to a job with Bartlesville's OK Mozart. During her second year, the festival made money for the first time in more than five years, she said.
In 2005, she wasn't looking for another job, but the ballet offered her its development director job, and she couldn't refuse. The opportunity, though, came with its own challenges.
"When I got here, unfortunately, and I don't think it's public knowledge, but things were rough here," she said. "Ticket sales had been declining. Turnover with staff was really bad. There had been four development directors in that office in less than four years.
"It's a nonprofit organization, so there's a lot of pressure and not a lot of pay, so you have to be dedicated," she said. "And you have to be kind of hard-headed.
At the top of the ballet hierarchy is Marcello Angelini, artistic director since 1995.
"Marcello has vision," Miller said. "He has big dreams. When he's thinking about what he wants to do, he thinks it through with detail. He can actually achieve it if he has the means to get there."
Angelini said he has "a tremendous amount of respect" for Miller's "knowledge and abilities." Then he added, "In fact, I always joke, but it's actually not too much of a joke, that I work for her."
Sixteen years ago, Angelini arrived at the ballet for his first job as an artistic director. Soon after, as Miller tells it, Angelini turned good dancers into great dancers. Once the ballet earned an international reputation for quality, famed choreographers such as Nacho Duato realized a relatively small ballet in middle America rivaled any ballet in the world.
Then it came time for the ballet to build its own theater to produce original works. So in 2005, the quiet phase of a $9 million fundraising campaign began to raise money to erect its theater, the Center for Dance Education, and to fund other needs.
In 2005, "special consultants," as Miller called the out-of-town fundraising experts, doubted the ballet could raise more than $5 million. Those experts were wrong and left before the campaign's official launch in August 2006. The campaign had raised $17.3 million by April 2008.
Once the consultants and the ballet parted ways, Miller arrived at the ballet in fall 2005, when it was roughly halfway to its $9 fundraising goal. To raise millions of dollars meant treating donors even better than before.
"It's so sad, but when I got here, they weren't even thanking the donors," Miller said. "The donors would send in a check and not receive any acknowledgement at all. You can't possibly keep a donor without acknowledging immediately - and again and again."
Beyond writing proposals for 2006, Miller penned the ballet's first development plan. Her questions were: "How do we get a gift? How do we appreciate a gift? And how do we get a gift again?"
After Miller targeted corporations and foundations for money, she went to the board of directors and asked if anyone had personal contacts with organizations.
"If there's a major funder in town," she said, "we always want to get somebody on the board."
In 2005, SemGroup, a Tulsa energy company, donated $10,000 to the ballet's fundraising campaign. It was SemGroup's first gift to the ballet and Miller's first week on the job.
By treating that $10,000 gift like gold, SemGroup later pledged a total of $2.5 million by the end of 2006.
When SemGroup filed for bankruptcy in 2008, the ballet had to find a way to survive without its donations.
The board members' answer was to pledge more than $800,000 in annual operating funds to offset the loss of SemGroup's donations.
Miller's first week on the job, she attended the opening night performance of "La Sylphide," featuring Ma Cong, a principal dancer with the ballet.
"I saw Ma Cong and I had no idea that people could move like that," Miller said. "He leapt, and he had this stage presence that is so engaging. I was just taken with it. Ever since then, I've been in love with ballet."
Original Print Headline: On her toes
Matt Gleason, 581-8473
Amy Miller, Tulsa Ballet director of development, is "in love with ballet." SHERRY BROWN / Tulsa World