Barry Hughson joined The National Ballet of Canada as Executive Director in 2014. Since that time, the company has accelerated its trajectory of artistic growth, fiscal responsibility, community engagement, and international presence, including landmark tours to New York City’s Lincoln Center, Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris and the Mariinsky and Stanislavsky Theatres in Russia.
Mr. Hughson began his career as a dancer with The Washington (DC) Ballet, where he performed classical and contemporary repertoire at the Kennedy Center and on tour throughout the world. For the last 25 years, he has served as an executive leader at Connecticut’s Warner Theatre, Complexions Contemporary Ballet in New York City, New Jersey’s American Repertory Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Boston Ballet and The National Ballet of Canada.
As an arts advocate, consultant and educator, Mr. Hughson has had consulting, teaching and speaking engagements in the US, Europe, South America, and Asia. He has served on a variety of industry boards, including Dance/USA, North America’s largest service organization for professional dance, where he recently completed two terms as a Trustee and Vice Chair. In partnership with Dance/USA and The Royal Ballet, Mr. Hughson spearheaded the first ever meeting of North American and European executive dance leadership, bringing together 22 administrators from nine countries in 2015. In Canada, Mr. Hughson serves as Vice-Chair of the National Council for the Canadian Dance Assembly and served on the Steering Committee for the Canadian Arts Summit from 2014 to 2017.
Barry Hughson joined The National Ballet of Canada in 2014 as Executive Director, arguably one of the most prestigious arts administration positions in the country. A former dancer, Mr. Hughson came to the National Ballet after a stellar career as Executive Director with both Boston Ballet and Atlanta Ballet.
Why the National Ballet?
In fact, I had no idea of leaving Boston, but when a recruiter approached me, I thought, why not have a look? When I got here, I felt an immediate connection with Artistic Director Karen Kain. I was also impressed by the passion of the Board members and with Toronto as a city. The most critical aspect, however, was wanting to work with Karen.
What were your first impressions of the National Ballet?
I saw a healthy and stable institution. You have to understand that in the case of both Boston and Atlanta, the companies were in dire financial straights when I took over. My job was righting the ship. At the National Ballet, I felt I could invest in the art form, that I could move forward instead. It was an exciting prospect because, with financial stability, you can build a culture of innovation and adaptability. A company in crisis mode is much less able to take strategic risks.
Let’s talk about innovation. How does it manifest itself at the National Ballet?
Technology is woven into everything we do, from archiving to payroll. In the last two years, we have really built up our technology infrastructure, yet, at the same time, we keep asking ourselves, what more can we do? Two examples come to mind. We livestream performances of our Apprentice programme, YOU dance, into elementary school classrooms across Canada. The National Ballet is also one of five international ballet companies that participate in the annual World Ballet Day, a 23 hour behind the scenes livestream. Last year, we were performing at Place des Arts in Montréal, so a huge global audience got to see what a ballet company does on tour and in real time.
How is social media part of the National Ballet’s technological revolution?
Social media definitely plays a role in marketing. We have to pay serious attention to how potential and existing audiences are receiving their information – such as following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Today, people really want to get inside the work. Moreover, they want to know the dancers as people and engage them as members of the community. We have to develop strategies to give young people access to both the ballets and the dancers.
I understand that the National Ballet has some new ideas in terms of the company’s relationship with long time patrons.
Along with the importance of audience development, is the concept of patron loyalty. The National Ballet is blessed with the inspiring, passionate and philanthropic support of a wonderful and deeply committed donor and volunteer community. We want to reward the faithful by bringing them closer to the company. We are working with the consulting firm Target Resource Group, whose mandate is aiding arts and entertainment organizations to achieve specific goals. TRG will be producing a report which outlines strategies on patron loyalty. On another note, we’re also working with TRG on pricing, the theory being to offer more accessible pricing on all five rings. This way, the theatre becomes one community.
I’m delighted to see that the National Ballet is raising its profile with international touring again.
This is a result of Karen’s aggressive commissioning of new full-length works. Presenters are always looking for the fresh and the different and we can offer North America Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale and Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet. We have been invited to New York City’s prestigious Lincoln Center Festival in July. We’ve also been to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, The Music Centre in Los Angeles and London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre. We’re currently in negotiations for a number of North American and European tours over the next several years.
Your vision for the growth and development of arts administration goes far beyond the boundaries of the company.
Absolutely. I am Vice Chair of Dance/USA, which is the largest service organization for professional dance companies in North America. My peers and I meet annually to discuss challenges that face us all, as well as finding solutions. On the international front, under my leadership, the National Ballet partnered with The Royal Ballet and Dance/USA last year to bring 22 dance executives from nine countries to London to discuss the future of ballet institutions. Topics such as business models, philanthropy and audience development were on the agenda. It was decided that this international forum will take place bi-annually.
What is your assessment of the National Ballet two years into the job and how do you see the future?
We are building on 65 years of history through a culture of adaptability and innovation. We are not afraid of strategic risk. In terms of stability, we’ve had seven years of balanced budgets, which is very unusual for large ballet companies. In terms of the future, there are clear goals – building up the endowment fund, working on the donor pipeline by attracting patrons in their forties and fifties and being mindful of the pressures on box office, because we can’t price ourselves out of the market. We also have to attract an audience that looks, in terms of diversity, like the city of Toronto.
Paula Citron is a freelance arts journalist.