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Beryl Jolly: So we were able to, by the time of our 10th anniversary in 2015, accomplish this major stepping stone that says The Mahaiwe– not only have we launched The Mahaiwe, you can rest assured it’s here to stay. It’s a guaranteed investment, and it keeps giving back.
Anita Walker: Hello. I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Beryl Jolly, Executive Director of The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. Welcome to the program.
Beryl Jolly: Thank you so much, Anita.
Anita Walker: I have to say that theater is gorgeous. It is an absolute jewel. And it has been transformative to Great Barrington, hasn’t it?
Beryl Jolly: It has, and it’s over a hundred years old. But the restoration in 2005 really did revitalize both the theater itself and then, the downtown has become even more vibrant. So it’s been an exciting journey.
Anita Walker: And the kind of programming you’re doing, give us just a little sample of the types of things you bring in.
Beryl Jolly: We are fortunate enough to attract headliners from all genres. So Alan Cumming and Kelli O’Hara on the Broadway scene, Melissa Etheredge we have coming, Joshua Bell, Joshua Redman, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, MOMIX, Chinese acrobats, Eric Carle shows for kids. So the gamut, but the best of each genre, which has been a really exciting process.
Anita Walker: And it’s full all the time. Just always…
Beryl Jolly: We are selling out.
Anita Walker: …something happening there, and people are just flocking to The Mahaiwe.
Beryl Jolly: It’s been a lot of fun. And we draw from within our Berkshire County region, and then from around the New England region, and actually, from around the country now. So it’s becoming both– it is a local landmark, but it’s becoming a whole regional destination, as well.
Anita Walker: Well, this was a visionary project to really return this amazing theater to its original glory and opulence. And you had to raise a lot of money for that.
Beryl Jolly: Absolutely. And Lola Jaffe is our Founder, and really with the restoration that began over 10, 15 years ago, transformed the theater, revitalized this beautiful jewel box of an architectural gem, and then fill it with the best of performing arts, and year round. The real mission statement was focused on year round programming because there are so many people who live in the Berkshires, visit the Berkshires in every season, and the summer season is certainly a popular time. But 12 months a year, there are people who are enjoying all that we have to offer. So it’s worked out very well.
Anita Walker: So we wanted to get into the weeds a little bit with you today. Because, as we like to say, part of our podcast audience are culture nerds <laughs> and people…
Beryl Jolly: Of course, we all are.
Anita Walker: …who like to look under the hood and see how things work. And one of the things that we have been so impressed with is running a capital campaign is a challenge for any organization. Although it’s always fun for donors to invest in something new or something shiny or something, you know, with a lot of bling and naming opportunities. But you, like a lot of other organizations, often have to contend with raising money to wipe out some debt. Oftentimes, whether it’s bridge loans or whatever the reason, debt comes into the picture. And for your sustainability in the future, first of all, that needs to go away. And then, also, you want to be able to put in place some operating reserves, so that you’re not biting your fingernails every time payroll comes up…
Beryl Jolly: Exactly. Exactly.
Anita Walker: But that’s a tough sell for donors. Yet, you have been amazingly successful. So tell us the secret of your success in this.
Beryl Jolly: We have a phenomenal board, a tremendous staff, and a great community, and so we were able to pay off all our bills with the restoration back in 2005. With that campaign, all the founders came in and restored the theater, completed each one of those major projects that brought a Vaudeville house into the 21st Century. So that was its first– a first major step. Then, we realized we still had the mortgage for the theater itself, and between 2005, with the recession in 2008-2009, there was a lot of vulnerability. We were launching a brand new year round performing arts center, experiencing all the ebbs and flows that the rest of the country was, and really honed in on the fact that we were paying every single month, principle and interest payments towards the bank, towards this debt, and really experiencing these nail biting times that you mentioned. So we focused on a 2.2 million dollar goal that would eliminate all that debt that had been consolidated, and build in this cash reserve that would allow us to have some really strong savings accounts. So that we could experience– weather any storms that might come along the way, and also start investing in bigger name talents, in the kinds of repairs to the theater that might become necessary, and looking at the bigger picture for the year round vision, and be able to take advantages of opportunities. We had donors who had supported us along the way, and had made a promise that if we were able to restore their– pay back their loan, they would return it to us and help us build that cash reserve. So really phenomenal community commitment and support from our area. So a few years ago, we started launching that campaign. We called it the Impact Campaign, because it would have a tremendous impact both on us and on Berkshire County. And the board came through, 100 percent of our board supported this effort. We had over 240 donors. Half of them gave between 20 and 500 dollars. So there were really grassroots supporters, as well as people who gave five and six figure gifts. So we were able to, by the time of our 10th anniversary in 2015, accomplish this major stepping stone that says The Mahaiwe– not only have we launched The Mahaiwe, you can rest assured it’s here to stay. It’s a guaranteed investment, and it keeps giving back.
Anita Walker: You know, I love the idea of the naming of this, Impact. That’s such an active word. Debt sounds like an anchor weight and <laughs>…
Beryl Jolly: Right. Right. Heavy.
Beryl Jolly: …something not really fun to participate in. Was that a real conscious and intentional decision the way you framed the campaign?
Beryl Jolly: Absolutely. And it was really– it’s a careful strategy, but it’s a real one. That is the story, is that with security and with fiscal responsibility, we can then deliver more confidently, actively, progressively. And that’s how we run in day-to-day operations, as well, is that there’s a passion and there’s a discipline. There’s the arts and there’s the business, and they go hand in hand to being able to deliver progressively and forwardly.
Anita Walker: I’m just trying to dig into the conversations you were having with potential donors. Because I think our field is fearful of campaigns to retire debt because the word debt. It almost makes you feel guilty, like you’ve done something wrong. Where, in many cases, debt is strategic. I mean, it’s a bridge loan to get something done. Did you use that word? Say, I’m a donor and you’re coming to me to have a conversation on the Impact campaign, and I’m saying, “What is the money for?” How did you talk about that.
Beryl Jolly: We really did say retiring this debt, and because we were such a young theater, this wasn’t something that had been dragging on for decades and decades. This was we had to purchase the theater. We restored the theater. We were operating on a 12-month year basis, but now we wanted to retire anything that had been holding us back from being 100 percent fiscally sound. And because of the recession in 2008, I think everyone in the country was feeling both personally and with the big banks and with the business overall economy, “Oh, yeah, this is something that many businesses contend with. But we’re passionate. We’re so appreciative of what The Mahaiwe is doing for Great Barrington, for Berkshire County, for the kids in our community, for so many people enjoying all these world class artists, we want to support this effort that will offer security.” We use that Impact word, though, very positively. It’s a proactive statement, as well. It’s not just retiring the debt and just having that behind us. It really is now we can move forward. Without making these kinds of monthly payments, we can invest more directly in our programming, in our artists, in the theater itself, in…
Anita Walker: So the…
Beryl Jolly: …the students.
Anita Walker: And I do want to call that out a little bit. Because you were actually– in the retiring of the debt, you were freeing up funds.
Beryl Jolly: That’s right.
Anita Walker: And so you were able to provide more product, more…
Beryl Jolly: That’s right.
Anita Walker: …public value, and in a way…
Beryl Jolly: Exactly.
Anita Walker: …that’s what the donors were buying while they were retiring the debt.
Beryl Jolly: And that’s the narrative, and that’s the true story, is that the other was holding us back and this is a way to invest directly in the artist, in the theater, in the community, much more directly. And without this holding us back, and with having this cash reserve, it just means we can pivot. We can take advantage of an opportunity. We can invest in a bigger name artist or make a programming choice that otherwise we would’ve been held back, or having to frantically fund raise for, on a case-by-case basis. That being said, we still have annual fundraising. We’re still a non-profit. Every year is its own challenge. We still require half of our operating budget to come from fundraising. Half is coming from ticket sales, but that’s out of a 2 million dollar budget. It’s still a big nut to crack, so we’re not out of the woods. But at the same time, we are moving forward securely.
Anita Walker: And to, sort of, underscore the point you just made, we certainly in the non-profit world, understand that we produce a product and then sell it for less than it costs to make. So…
Beryl Jolly: That’s right.
Anita Walker: …the patron’s ticket price is probably about a third of what it cost you to provide that experience…
Beryl Jolly: That’s right.
Anita Walker: …for the theater goer. And I think that’s something the general public probably doesn’t understand as clearly as we wish. But that’s what the contributed income is all about, to make those tickets affordable, to make those tickets available to everybody in the community. Let’s go back to the cash reserve. Because, you know, when we talk about cash reserve with our organizations, it just feels like wouldn’t that be nice, but that’s so far out of reach. It started with an intentional decision on your part. You…
Beryl Jolly: That’s right.
Anita Walker: …built it in to your strategic planning that you wanted to have a cash reserve. Tell me where that impetus came from.
Beryl Jolly: It really was a critical conversation between donors and the board and myself, around the fact that we are too young to have an endowment, and an endowment would lock up so much principle that we wouldn’t be able to take advantage of those kinds of funds. As secure that can make an organization, we are just– we are still young. This is only our 11th season. But a cash reserve would offer us access to something. This particular reserve fund comes with a strict charter. It has its own committee. We’re following specific rules around borrowing and replenishment. It’s not just an open savings account or bank account. It’s something that we access with oversight. But if we need it, when we’re making a specific repair to the theater, for example. The grant is coming. It just hasn’t come in, yet, and the bill is in front of us and we want to take care of the contractor. We can borrow from this fund, pay the contractor, and when the grant comes in, replenish that account. So it’s a way to be very responsible, and yet, take care of this historic theater, which is a beautiful gem in the heart of our downtown, and maintain our business model.
Anita Walker: You know, it used to be in the olden days, <laughs> that endowment was everything. In fact, the Massachusetts Cultural Council actually used to have a program to help organizations start an endowment. But I think, increasingly, our organizations are realizing that they have to raise a hundred dollars to get one.
Beryl Jolly: Right.
Anita Walker: Because that money sits in an endowment and is of no use to them. And especially for organizations like yours, our venerable long-standing organizations, who have…
Beryl Jolly: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: …built endowments over years and had them in place already, they certainly can help with the cash flow and the operating budget. But I just think it was so smart, the way you thought that through, and strategically, the cash reserve just makes more sense.
Beryl Jolly: And it does. It allows us to take advantage of opportunities, take care of the theater as needed, replenish that account. It stays within its– you know, at its full amount on an annual basis, and yet, we can move forward.
Anita Walker: Brilliant. <laughs>
Beryl Jolly: And it’s a team effort. What has been so satisfying about this experience is the support from the donor community. The board of directors, who have been phenomenal for over a decade, many of our board members have been with us since the founding and restoration of the theater 11 years ago. The grassroots community, so these donors that were contributing $50, the letters coming in and saying, “Thank you. I heard about this campaign. Go for it.” And then, we have this– we were able to cap this off in our 10th anniversary season because we had a donor who said, “If you can reach this goal, there’ll be a 500,000-dollar matching grant.” So towards the very end of the finish line, right before our 10th anniversary gala with Audrey McDonald, we were able to say, “Come on in. Help us hit this mark.” And now we’re that much stronger. So it’s really been a very reaffirming positive journey, as well as offering us security. It’s the spirit that the community participated in this in and the supporters that have really anchored us.
Anita Walker: Beryl Jolly, Executive Director of The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, another Creative Mind Out Loud.
Beryl Jolly: Thank you so much for having me.
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