Lunched yesterday with Jason Palmquist, the new executive director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. He joked about having successfully survived his first 100 days at the helm of the contemporary dance company, a Chicago institution that has, of late, been rocked with major changes (the departures of its longtime executive director and second company directors, retiring dancers, etc).
Arts administrators are an interesting bunch (and, no, that’s not a joke). The successful ones are fluent in the language of balance sheets and budgets; but they have to speak a creative language too. It looks like Palmquist has the background required to do both: For 13 years, starting as an intern, he helped program theatre, dance, and all kinds of cross-discipline sort of stuff for the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in D.C. After that, he went to the Washington Ballet. There, a contractual dispute broke that had been looming over the previous directors. Performances were canceled. Dancers went on strike. Of course, he wasn’t too eager to rehash the details, but he did say he had learned a few things. An excerpt from our conversation below.
Coda: What are we looking at?
Palmquist: It’s a page from a PowerPoint presentation [recently given to the Hubbard Street board]. It’s a really different way of thinking about tickets and ticketing. The front part of the orchestra (the first few rows) is notoriously tough to sell in dance. So, instead of putting our $25 seats in the very back of the theatre, we’re going to move them to the front and sides of the orchestra.
Coda: What sort of message are you trying to send?
Palmquist: That we know that there’s an audience for dance in Chicago that’s price-sensitive.
Coda: You said that out of the company’s $6 million revenue figures, only $600,000—or roughly 10 percent—comes from tickets sold in Chicago. That figure, you remarked, is too low.
Palmquist: It’s completely understandable on one hand. There’s the issue of theatre availability, and of Hubbard’s touring schedule. It’s like Hubbard has been a touring company, and Chicago has been a stop on a tour. But the work that the company is doing is at such an incredible, world-class level, there’s more of an audience in Chicago for it [than what is represented]. I’ve looked at the data. We have the potential for our audience to grow. Instead of having a fall season and a spring season, perhaps we should create multiple opportunities to be immersed in the cultural life of Chicago—and to increase our earned resources in Chicago.
Coda: For a long time, Hubbard Street was a company run by dance stalwarts. What does it mean for it to now be helmed by two relatively young men [Palmquist is 36; artistic director Jim Vincent is in his late 40s]?
Palmquist: If you look at the current repertoire, you see that several of the current choreographers whose work we perform—Nacho Duato, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian—these were acquired under [founder] Lou Conte’s direction. It’s interesting. I actually [during the interview process] got to spend some time with Lou. He feels like, in 2007, the company is the exact representation of what, in 1977, he wanted to build. And Gail [Kalver], she’s been so generous to me in terms of making sure I’m set up for success and that I’m meeting the appropriate folks.
Coda: You mentioned wanted to start a health and wellness program for dancers. Does this, at all, reflect something you learned during the contract disputes in D.C.?
Palmquist: When I went to the Washington Ballet, I had never been at the head of a ballet company before. I came out of a completely different place. But you always start at the same place: the budget. Looking at the budget can help you see where lots of resources are being utilized. The single largest check we wrote at the Washington Ballet was for dancers’ compensation: that meant dancers were being injured. Health and injury was obviously important before the disputes, but it was obvious that it should be an institutional priority and not just an individual priority. At Hubbard, there are already lots of things we do right—in-house physical therapy three times a week, year-round health coverage—but we haven’t named it and claimed it. I think we should create a comprehensive program and that it should come from the dancers and medical professionals; I see my job as a facilitator.
Coda: The most important relationship in a dance company is between the executive director [who runs the business side] and the artistic director [who makes decisions about choreography and programming]. How are you approaching your relationship with Jim Vincent?
Palmquist: It is the single most important relationship, and you have to care of it. That means spending a lot of time communicating. The boundaries are so blurred between what we both do. Jim spends most of the time in the studio, I’m in the office. But I’m talking about an artistic product. I’m talking to audiences. You will find that the more successful a relationship, the more successful the company. I’m not particularly interested in rehashing the particulars of what happened in D.C., but my relationship with Septime [Weber, the Washington Ballet’s longtime artistic director] was a strong one. That’s one of the things that helped us weather the storms.