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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Cheri Tompkins Walsh

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-11-01

Cheri Tompkins Walsh trained as a dancer in her native California, came to audition for a supporting role at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, got the job, and now, two years later, she directs the 51-year-old institution at Brooklyn College.

"When you're a performer on stage, your immediate audience matters most, and at the end of the day you're responsible for yourself," Ms. Walsh said yesterday. "But when you're in the business side of things as a manager, your work impacts many - your staff, students, the community and your city. You have to ensure that your institution is uplifting not only for its core constituency but also for the economic development of the area."

"It's a balancing act - where you're balancing the artistry, operations, and the finances," the managing director of the center continued. "Change is difficult no matter what business you're in."

That the re-energizing of the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts has been entrusted by its board to a 32-year-old political-science graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles, speaks volume about its faith in her. Board members, including chairman Christoph Kimmich - president of Brooklyn College - were impressed with Ms. Walsh's record at her earlier job in Charlotte.

As director of development for the North Carolina Dance Theatre, she raised significant sums from corporations and other institutions - particularly banks -- and helped put the nonprofit company on firmer financial ground.

"I was petrified at first," Ms. Walsh said. "But in fundraising, as in most everything else, it's one step at a time, one institution at a time."

And here in New York, she hit the ground running, eliciting contributions and sponsorships from several sources, including JP Morgan Chase, Independence Community Foundation, Citigroup Foundation, Commerce Bank, Emigrant Savings Bank, Con Edison, Macy's East, and KeySpan.
Ms. Walsh's annual budget is $1.5 million, half of which comes from sales of tickets to some 60 different shows the center hosts each year at its 2,400-seat Walt Whitman Theatre.

In view of the plethora of ethnic communities in Brooklyn, Ms. Walsh invites artists from many parts of the world. Recent performers have included the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, and Les Ballets Africains. Ms. Walsh said that because of the center's "strength as a dance presenter," more than 40 dance companies have made their New York debut in its auditorium. Among them: the Washington, Chicago and Atlanta Ballets; Italy's Aterballetto, and France's Ballet du Nord.

Performers have also included Luciano Pavarotti, Isaac Stern, Gregory Hines, Margot Fonteyn, Beverly Sills, Ray Charles, Vladimir Horowitz, Tony Bennet, and Itzhak Perlman.

These performances and other events draw tens of thousands people to the center each year. More than 37,000 students from 200 public schools participate in arts education program; in addition, Ms. Walsh encourages Brooklyn families to visit, and now nearly 5,000 come to the center annually.

"We've been Brooklyn's best kept secret," she said. "But that's not good for us. We are accelerating the synergy between the center, Brooklyn College, the performing arts, local businesses and the borough. I want more people to know our center as a destination."

Ms. Walsh contends that the modest size of her current budget - which she hopes to increase - doesn't quite capture the center's impact on its Flatbush neighborhood.

"The center brings thousands of visitors to the neighborhood," she said. "They go shopping, they consume coffee at new bars that have sprung up, they visit restaurants. That's tangible economic development. Our cultural center is a tremendous economic anchor."

Does her background as a dancer help in any way?

"Of course," Ms. Walsh said. "As a dancer you have to be versatile, nimble, stay calm. You have to relate to your audience. My audience now is the Brooklyn community, and versatility and other qualities I picked up in dancing are very useful when it comes to running a business operation."

What about the perception of some people that a nonprofit organization doesn't need the energetic management required of commercial organizations?

Ms. Walsh gave the reporter a sharp look.

"My mission is to maintain the integrity of the enterprise - and to run it as a viable business," she said. "I'm not deluded that it's an arts organization and therefore all it needs to do is to provide cultural entertainment. The center is a business - and as much as any corporate head, I need to balance the budget."

Ms. Walsh said that perhaps the best business education that she received was through her own efforts. Growing up in Irvine, California, she began teaching dance at the age of 15. She hasn't stopped since. Her teaching has taken her to Europe and Africa, as well as across America.

"Those experiences taught me to relate to very diverse kinds of people - that's one of the most valuable management skills to have," Ms. Walsh said.
Not long after she arrived in New York, Ms. Walsh was volunteering at a dance performance at St. Mark's Church in lower Manhattan.

As she wandered around in the churchyard, she came across the grave of Daniel Tompkins, who was President Monroe's vice president. Tompkins, who was also governor of New York, was a direct forebear of Ms. Walsh's father, Cliff Tompkins.

"It's pretty amazing that my family made a significant contribution to New York - and now I have a chance to make my own mark," Ms. Walsh said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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