The Columbia Ballet Collaborative, a dance group composed of students from all four undergraduate colleges, has been performing at Miller Theatre since spring 2009. The sprung floor of Miller is ideal for the dancers, who enjoyed free use of the space thanks to subsidies from the theater’s administrators and the University’s Arts Initiative.
But last year, an administrator told the group that it would no longer honor that arrangement, and the group would have to rent the space. Last year, CBC paid $2,500 for three days of use, this year it will pay $6,800 for three days of use, and from next year on it will need to pay the full price tag of $9,600 for three days of use, according to Ariana Lott, CC ’13 and CBC’s artistic director.
“The increase in price has really limited our ability to carry out our mission, which is to bring dance, and specifically ballet, to Columbia,” Lott said.
The ballet collaborative’s experience reflects what some say is a fundamental flaw with Miller Theatre—that it’s disengaged from Columbia students. Meanwhile, the Arts Initiative, which is also led by Miller Theatre’s executive director, Melissa Smey, has sparked concerns of its own.
With prices going up at the Ticket and Information Center and a largely out-of-date website, student leaders in the arts, as well as the program’s former director, have raised questions about whether the Arts Initiative is doing everything it can to serve undergraduates. Smey is scheduled to meet with several student performing groups on Saturday to discuss her role with the Arts Initiative and answer any questions they may have.
The cost of performing
Gregory Mosher, the former executive director of the Arts Initiative, also known as CUArts, thinks the University is not utilizing Miller Theatre well. The theater is used mostly to showcase professional performers from outside the University, rather than student groups.
“For eight years, since coming to Columbia in 2004, I have not understood how Miller Theatre is not considered a resource for the University,” Mosher, a two-time Tony Award winner and a professor at the School of the Arts, said. “It’s best used as a resource for Columbia’s creative community.”
“The question of Miller’s institutional disengagement from Columbia’s creative community is mystifying to me,” he added.
For the ballet collaborative—which the New York Times said in 2010 had “a few of the best ballet dancers in the world”—the increased cost of performing at Miller has made it cheaper to perform off campus than on campus. Lott said that Miller is the only theater on campus with a sprung floor, which is necessary for ballet.
“CBC is a large reason why I and many of the dancers in our company came to Columbia,” Lott said. “It’s just really unfortunate that we aren’t able to provide it [CBC] with all of the resources to perform on campus.”
During his tenure as CUArts’ executive director, Mosher brokered an agreement between CBC and Miller Theatre allowing the group to use the theater for free, but when Smey took over CUArts, she reversed the decision, instituting the graduated payment scheme.
She justified the decision, saying, “Miller has to cover the cost of performances through ticket sales and fundraising. Every event that goes on that stage has costs associated with it, and the producer has to cover it. Student events have to cover the same costs as University programs.”
“CBC before was given money from Miller,” she added, “and I did not want to perpetuate a situation that I saw as unfair, where we were privileging one student group over all of the others.”
CUArts and Miller Theatre
CUArts was established by University President Lee Bollinger in 2004. According to its website, CUArts caters to all of Columbia’s schools and seeks to “make arts and culture a meaningful part of every Columbian’s experience.” Miller Theatre, which says on its website that its mission is to “share Columbia University’s intellectual riches with the public,” is a separate entity, although both are run by Smey.
Mosher stepped down as executive director of CUArts in fall 2010, following Bollinger’s announcement that there would be significant changes to the initiative. CUArts was moved from under the Office of the President into the School of the Arts—with the head of the Arts Initiative reporting to SoA Dean Carol Becker—and its budget was cut by 40 percent over two years. Bollinger appointed Smey director of CUArts in July 2011.
Smey said she sees her leadership of Miller Theatre and CUArts as an opportunity for the two organizations to collaborate. She cited last weekend’s Morningside Lights performance—the culmination of a weeklong lantern-making workshop—as the first collaboration between the organizations.
“We connected people and neighborhood community to the arts and to each other,” she said. “Morningside Lights was collaborative. We had feedback from community members, the campus, and our partners from the previous event.”
But while Smey is leading both organizations, Mosher saw his role as executive director of CUArts as a full-time commitment.
“I could only do it from being there from nine in the morning until nine at night,” he said. “And it’s the only way I knew how to do that job.”
Smey said the fact that both Miller Theatre and CUArts are based in Dodge Hall makes it easier for her to do both jobs. She declined to answer questions about CUArts’ budget except to say that funding comes from the central administration, not from the School of the Arts.
Mosher, though, said it continues to be a problem that CUArts is operating at 60 percent of its former budget.
“There were at one point nine of us staffers, all full-time, plus somewhere between five and 10 student staffers,” Mosher said. “And now you’re down to three full-time people.”
The smaller staff, Mosher said, has meant less effort spent calling producers to demand lower ticket prices to Broadway shows, which he attributes to the rising cost of tickets at the TIC.
Smey, however, said that higher discount prices are a result of the increasing cost of full-price tickets, whereas TIC’s discount percentage has stayed the same. “Our operating model has not changed,” she said. “We—namely [TIC manager] Rudy Scala—negotiate the best group rate that we can. What has changed in some cases is that the face prices of the tickets have gone up.”
Smey cited “The Lion King” as an example. “The face price of a weeknight ticket in the rear mezzanine in 2008 was $51.25. Tickets for those same seats are now $80 to $97,” she said.
Additionally, CUArts’ website is updated infrequently and features outdated information. Smey said that she is working to fix the problem.
“I am actively engaged with a consultant who is working to help us revamp that website, sections that haven’t been updated in the past three or four years,” she said. “My priority is to get it updated and refreshed.”
Mosher called the budget cuts, higher ticket prices, and a lack of new programming “unfortunate.” Now, he said, “You just have serious retrenchment to the degree that it limits students’ opportunities.”
On Friday, when asked if he had kept tabs on CUArts since it left the purview of his office, Bollinger said, “I haven’t.” He said he was not aware of student discontent with the program, and when a reporter explained some of Mosher’s and Lott’s issues with Smey’s administration, he said, “I’m glad to know it.”
Bollinger said in a statement on Thursday that he is “delighted by the trajectory of our Arts Initiative under Melissa Smey’s innovative leadership.” He also praised Miller Theatre for its programming.
“Last Saturday’s very well-attended Morningside Lights parade—and the weeklong open workshop that preceded it—is a great example of the creativity and community engagement that can come by bringing together Miller Theatre and the School of the Arts in much closer partnership with undergraduate life and learning,” he said.