Q&A: Joffrey Ballet President and CEO Greg Cameron

In an era when many of the traditionally great cultural arts organizations struggle, the record-breaking financial and attendance success of Joffrey Ballet’s 2017-2018 season particularly stands out:

  • Revenue up 11 percent year over year.
  • The season opener and closer — “Giselle” and Alexander Ekman’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” — earned revenue that makes them two of the top five best-selling productions in Joffrey’s history — except for “The Nutcracker.”
  • Christopher Wheeldon’s reimagined, Chicago-themed “Nutcracker” earns $4.6 million in just its second season.
  • Stunning collaborative performances with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Los Angeles Opera of “Orpheus and Eurydice” — the latter performed as part of a month-long residency at The Music Center of Los Angeles.
  • Sold-out performances at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.
  • Education outreach programs that create opportunities for artists and nurture the next generation of audience for ballet.

Because success begets success, it’s not surprising that the Joffrey also received a $1 million grant from the Alphawood Foundation to fund a three-year audience expansion and sustainability project, as well as a recent $5 million endowment gift from the Paul Galvin Memorial Foundation Trust to establish The Mary B. Galvin Artistic Director position in honor of long-time Joffrey supporter Mary Galvin.

So what’s at the heart of all this extraordinary success?

The 10-year tenure of internationally renowned Ashley Wheater as Artistic Director, world-class performers and staff, and a connected and highly engaged board, women’s board, and other development arms help. But, make no mistake, much of this success can be traced to the 2013 hiring of Greg Cameron.

Heart for the arts meets smarts with him.

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Ashley Wheater and Greg Cameron at Joffrey’s 16th annual Gala on April 20, 2018. (Photo by Steve Becker Photography.)

A natural connector, strategist, collaborator, story-teller, and motivator, Cameron is a lifelong Chicagoan and champion of the arts. His career reads like a march up the city’s leading arts organization ladder — including service at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Art Institute of Chicago, and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where he rose to the roles of Deputy Director and Chief Development Officer, and Chicago’s public television and radio stations, WTTW/WFMT, as COO.

Cameron evidences his deep commitment to Chicago through broad based civic service too. His board and committee service include Enrich Chicago, Forefront, UIC, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Fashion Committee, Chicago Community Trust LGBT Committee, Terra Foundation‘s Art Design Chicago Advisory Committee, and Choose Chicago. Cameron even serves as a State Street Commissioner.

I confess to a significant soft spot for Cameron, because he quickly embraced Make It Better’s innovative, collaborative, community-building strategy and helped forge a strong partnership between our organizations.

“We’re tired of first dates,” Cameron declared. “We want to go steady with you!” He serves as a particularly thoughtful judge for our Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy Awards too.

Because Make It Better believes that great arts for all makes communities stronger and better, we hope this Q&A will inspire a multitude of other arts organizations to similar success too. 

Susan B. Noyes: Bravo and congratulations on the Joffrey’s extraordinarily successful 2017-2018 season! Thanks for the opportunity to celebrate with you and inspire others too.

Let’s cut to the chase. Were you born to do this work?

Greg Cameron: Feels that way. I’ve always loved the arts, but I was never a good artist. I could paint by numbers, or I could connect the dots. Early on I realized that I was a good dot connector. I could connect people to each other and get them involved with the things they believed in.

I ran a makeshift theater out of my garage and sold more mints than anyone else for my local YMCA. It seemed natural to turn these passions into a career raising funds for cultural organizations that I love too.

greg-cameron-childhood

A young Greg Cameron (Photo courtesy of Joffrey Ballet.)

Please tell us about your other loves too. What do you love to do when you aren’t working? 

To be honest, I do not think of my support of the Joffrey mission as work. It is more of a calling. On any given day I might be part pastor, politician, psychologist, or philosopher. Trusted and dedicated colleagues ensure that even when we have challenges, we have fun!

Of course, I enjoy quiet time with my partner, Greg Thompson. When we are not attending a Joffrey event we might be at the Museum of Contemporary Art “meeting” a new artist, engaging in a Steppenwolf performance, seeing a film, attending a reading, exploring Chicago’s amazing culinary scene, or entertaining friends with a home-cooked meal. I am the sous-chef and Greg is the chef de cuisine.

Our priority is each other followed closely by family and friends. They bring us joy and keep us curious. 

What are your Chicago favorites — restaurants, buildings, parks, sports, other? 

In my 60 years as a Chicago resident, I have been to three Cubs games, two Bulls games, and one Bears game. I do not attend frequently, but I love when they win. My favorite breakfast spot is NoMI in the Park Hyatt. For dinner, I love Avec, Proxi, Cafe Bionda, and several neighborhood Mexican cantinas.

As for buildings, I love the Thompson Center, even if I’m in the minority of popular opinion. My other favorites are the Chicago Cultural Center, anything that has to do with Mies architecture, and the ever-changing State Street.

As a Lakeview resident, there is nothing better than a jaunt to Lincoln Park. It has everything — the lakefront, public art, the Conservatory, the Zoo, the Green City Market, and the Chicago History Museum. 

What are you most excited about for the upcoming 2018-2019 season? Can it top the extraordinary success of this past year, which included a celebration of Ashley Wheater’s 10th Anniversary too? 

With Ashley’s artistic vision and the technical and theatrical skill of our company artists, it just continues to get better. I am particularly excited about our “Anna Karenina” co-commission with The Australian Ballet. It will be on par with our world premiere production of Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker” in 2016. The artistic team is different, but equally accomplished in all areas of the performing arts, whether it be the choreographer Yuri Possokhov, Emmy-winning designer Tom Pye, or one of Russia’s most esteemed composers in Ilya Demutsky.

As I write, Yuri is creating the work on the company artists. Mark your calendar for the world premiere on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

joffrey-ballet-anna-karenina

“Anna Karenina” (Image courtesy of Joffrey Ballet.)

What are the best techniques for other arts organizations who would like to expand audience and financial support too? 

Lead with mission and tell your story. Do not try to control the so-called “consumer experience.” Take baby steps and ask your supporters to join you on the journey.

Please share your best mentor advice. How does one prepare to successfully lead an arts organization that relies as heavily on philanthropy as the ballet does in the 21st Century? 

The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

When you listen to other people and their stories, you create authentic and lasting relationships. These relationships sustain an organization in times of scarcity and abundance. And of course, always remember to thank people multiple times.   

Anything else you want to tell us?

Get involved in what gives you joy and makes you smile. If more people embraced the words of Mother Teresa, “Peace begins with a smile,” Chicago and beyond would indeed be a better place to live, learn, work, play, and dance!

Thank you!

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