Drumming up support for the arts

Arts advocate Lynda Courts saved Atlanta Ballet from going under. Now she's a mainstay of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund

B Y - D O U G - M O N R O E - (A B J - '6 9)

The black Mercedes heads south out of Buckhead, turns off I-75/85 near the airport, and stops in front of a renovated schoolhouse on a dead-end street in East Point. A misty rain is falling as the driver, a petite woman who moves with the grace of a ballerina, enters the building. Lynda Courts was, in fact, a ballerina, and though she traded dance for running years ago, she still looks as if she could perform the Lilac Fairy variation from "Sleeping Beauty."

Courts (AB '63) is meeting with old friends, Waverly Lucas and Nena Gilreath, who are trying to succeed in the difficult arts environment of Atlanta. Lucas and Gilreath operate Ballethnic, a 12-year-old dance company and academy that blends classical ballet with West African dance. Courts met the couple when they danced with Atlanta Ballet in 1988. A year later, Courts became chair of the company's board of directors, and when you ask arts people in Atlanta what they remember about her seven-year tenure, they all say the same thing:

"Lynda Courts saved Atlanta Ballet."

These days, Courts devotes a great deal of her time and energies to serving on the board of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund. Besides visiting with old friends, she is also part of a team making a site visit to Ballethnic, which has requested a two-year, $50,000 Arts Fund grant in order to hire an administrative director. The Arts Fund will parcel out $290,000 in grants this year to organizations with annual operating budgets of less than $1 million. Atlanta has more than 350 small- to medium-sized arts groups that don't fall under the nurturing umbrella of the Woodruff Arts Center, and competition for the Arts Fund grants is fierce. Ballethnic is one of 13 finalists.

The site visit begins with Ballethnic board members and their visitors from the Arts Fund taking seats on a stage. Gilreath opens the discussion by bringing Courts up to date on Ballethnic's success in the community: the company stages three major productions and nearly 50 community performances each year. One member of the company is a recent UGA graduate, Amy Harold Hazelwood (BSEd '97).

As Courts and her colleagues begin reviewing Ballethnic's balance sheets, Gilreath says a past grant from the fund helped Ballethnic hire a marketing director and reach a new level of success. "What it really accomplished," adds Lucas, "was getting us to understand the importance of marketing and business in general, not just art."

Money is serious business in the Atlanta arts scene because—other than the $7-$8 million raised by the Woodruff Arts Center in its annual corporate campaign—there is so little of it. And much of what is raised by individuals is raised by Lynda Courts and people she has mentored over the years.

"Lynda inspires others to jump on the bandwagon to make a difference," says Beth Holder, current board chair of Atlanta Ballet. "She has been my mentor in the not-for-profit world for the last 10 years. She is a great role model."

Courts helped facilitate the hiring of artistic director John McFall, who, according to one reviewer, has refashioned Atlanta Ballet's "dusty, Ballanchine-heavy repertoire" into a "showcase for vigorous contemporary choreography."

Top of page: Atlanta Ballet is the oldest continuously operating ballet company in the country, and Courts was a good enough dancer to spend three years with the main company while still in high school at Westminster in Atlanta. Her mentor, the legendary "Miss Dorothy" Alexander, started a dance group in 1929 that was the forerunner of Atlanta Ballet, which went professional in 1967.

Courts co-chaired a campaign that raised $4 million for the Arts Fund two years ago, and today its endowment approaches $8 million. She also served as chair of the Arts and Business Council, an arm of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

"Lynda is straightforward, respectful, and encouraging," says Arts Fund director Lisa Cremin, who joined Courts on the Ballethnic site visit. "She believes in how important art is to our lives and she is working on behalf of organizations being as smart as they can be so their art will thrive."

Courts' work affects arts groups throughout the metro area, but she has made her most indelible mark on Atlanta Ballet.

"Lynda is the reason we exist today—because of her perseverance, optimism, and leadership through difficult times," says Holder.

Ballet has likewise played an important role in Courts' life since she was 3 years old. At the time, her older sister, the actress Lane Bradbury, was taking dance from Dorothy Alexander, a renowned teacher who formed the Dorothy Alexander Dance Concert Group in 1929. In 1940, the group became Atlanta Civic Ballet and went professional in 1967, when the name became Atlanta Ballet. Lynda tagged along when Lane danced at the Ansley Park home of "Miss Dorothy."

"Miss Dorothy would occasionally watch me squirming on the window seat next to my mother with my feet moving and she would let me join in at the end of class for Reverance, the formalized bowing procedure," Courts recalls. "She took pity on me and let me start taking ballet class when I was 4, a year earlier than they used to let people start.

"Miss Dorothy was the most important mentor in my life other than my own mother. One of the reasons I am so committed to Atlanta Ballet is because I have a strong appreciation for and attraction to the performing product. Miss Dorothy was a pioneer and we're the oldest continuously operating ballet company in the country."

Courts danced with the apprentice company for two years and the main company of Atlanta Ballet for three years while she was in high school at Westminster in Atlanta. From there, she went on to UGA, where she started in drama but switched to English. She was a cheerleader her freshman year and a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. She also found time to teach ballet for Lucy Lampkin in Athens.

"I would get in my car and go down to Miss Lucy's and enter the ballet world and teach children—and it was so special to me," Courts recalls. "It was a little period of time that was my own that had nothing to do with UGA and the campus life."

With Atlanta Ballet $1.6 million in debt in 1989, Courts and her fellow boards members jettisoned the orchestra and cut $1 million out of the budget. It was a drastic plan—and it worked.

After graduation, Courts went to Florida State, where she earned a master's degree in English education. She also taught ballet to children of faculty members at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. She returned to Atlanta and taught English at Georgia State, but stayed active in dance by teaching ballet at the Atlanta Girls Club.

In 1966, she married Richard Courts II (BBA '59), who had been a senior at Westminster when Lynda was a "peon" eighth-grader. Richard worked for the Courts family's investment banking firm, Courts & Co. The couple had four boys in five years, and for awhile the young mother took classes with the ballet company to stay in shape.

As her boys grew older, Courts was drawn back to Atlanta Ballet, joining the board in 1980. By the late 1980s, friction erupted between ballet president and general manager Kenneth Hertz and long-time artistic director Bobby Barnett. Hertz was ousted at a closed board meeting; Courts was vice-chairman at the time. Board chairman Paul Dean, a business executive, suggested that he and Courts switch positions because his job kept him on the road at a time the ballet needed hands-on management.

"That is why I agreed to become chair," says Courts. "I felt really inadequate. I felt like I was pretty good at being a carpool mother and organizing and surviving four children—which I learned over the next seven years is not a whole lot different from being chairman of a board."

Courts' quick sense of humor defines the ease with which she works with people. "She has a great wit," says Beth Holder, "and she uses examples of her personal life and her volunteer life to express things."

Courts needed all the humor she could muster to survive the ballet's financial crisis in 1989. The company was $1.6 million in debt.

"We had something like a $2 million budget and that year we cut a million out of it—and we cut the orchestra," she recalls. "It was the first time we had not had live music in a while and the musicians union struck us. We spent the entire year trying to decide whether to stay in business or close in an organized fashion."

The board set three benchmarks: whether the ballet could get enough funding to stage "Nutcracker," which was the big event of the year; whether "Nutcracker" would meet its projected goal; and whether the ballet could raise enough contributed income to meet earned revenue projections through the end of the fiscal year.

"We squeaked by on each account . . . probably by $30," says Courts, who steered the ballet through another crisis in 1994, when Barnett, who had lifted the company from civic to professional status, resigned a year ahead of his planned retirement to protest drastic cuts in the upcoming season's budget.

Courts initiated a transition team that replaced Barnett with John McFall, who had danced with San Francisco Ballet. Three years after McFall's arrival, Atlanta Journal Constitution writer Wendell Brock wrote that McFall had refashioned the ballet's "dusty, Balanchine-heavy repertoire" into "a showcase for vigorous contemporary choreography."

Unlike smaller Charlotte, which has an arts fund that collects $18 million a year, Atlanta lacks the kind of corporate leadership that really champions the arts. That's where Lynda Courts comes in.

Courts says small arts organizations like Atlanta's Ballethnic dance company help create a pyramid effect that benefits the symphony, museum, ballet, and theater.

Having guided the ballet through both financial and artistic crises, Courts stepped down as chair in 1996 but remained on the board, where her fund-raising abilities have become legendary.

"Richard, my husband, calls me the Atlanta Ballet obnoxianado, and what he means by that is nobody's wallet is safe if I'm in the room and start talking about the ballet," she says. "I have had to learn to translate our needs into language that a business person understands—from a marketing point of view, from a fiscal responsibility point of view, from a venture capital point of view. My degree was in English but my practical degree from the University of Atlanta Ballet is more like an MBA. I never knew how to read a balance sheet or understood how to read an annual report before I started this."

Courts gets high marks from J. Don Edwards, former dean of UGA's Terry College of Business and a member of the ballet's board of directors.

"She's a very good business woman and a quick learner," says Edwards. "She's dedicated to the arts and has been the significant leader in revitalizing the ballet in Atlanta. She has true leadership qualities."

Atlanta Ballet is one of 17 metro arts organizations with budgets at or above $1 million. Whereas, the Arts Fund keeps a watchful eye on small- to medium-sized organizations that need help in order to grow and prosper—or sometimes just to survive.

"I think of the Arts Fund as a venture capital fund," she says. "It tries to choose organizations that have the best opportunity to move to the next level and to help them in their business model so they can sustain their artistic product."

Smaller arts organizations are crucial, she believes, because "if you don't have a lot of artistic activity at the grassroots level, ultimately the large arts organizations—the symphony, museum, ballet, opera, and theater—will suffer. You need a huge pyramid effect to get up to those top levels that then receive major funding."

Like many arts organizations, Atlanta Ballet has seen a dropoff in giving because of the economy, despite a successful season that featured a popular production with the Indigo Girls.

"Corporations for the last five years have been pulling in on their philanthropic budgets and going strictly for marketing," Courts says. "And since the economy started tanking, with the layoffs and downsizing, there is just not as much money to be gotten. Foundations are funded by stock and those stocks have diminished in value, so they have less money to give. Our corporate and foundation goals look like they are going to be as much as $250,000 off our projection, which is not a huge increment in a budget of over $7 million, but we can't afford any of it."

Unlike smaller Charlotte, where the community has a United Way-style arts fund that collects nearly $18 million a year, the Atlanta community has a reputation for under-funding the arts.

"For some reason, we have never had corporate leadership passionate enough to really champion the arts and make it one of the areas in which we shine," says Courts. "But I will say that not since the Orly crash 40 years ago have the arts commanded such a prominent place in the corporate agenda."

Lynda Courts—the Atlanta Ballet obnoxianado—deserves some of the credit for that.

"She has deep tentacles into the community," says Lisa Cremin of the Arts Fund. "She knows a lot of people through being a lifelong Atlanta resident. She is out and about and intermingling with new Atlanta and old Atlanta and a variety of ages and backgrounds. Her understanding of local history really enhances her leadership."

Most important, says Cremin, is the fact that Courts has weathered storm after storm in the arts and come out a winner.

"She really understands from personal experience how you handle the management challenges of running an arts organization in the middle of a crisis, as well as when you get out of the woods and can see clearly."

Doug Monroe (ABJ '69) is an Atlanta freelancer.

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