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With new cast behind the scenes, Harvard’s ART stages financial revival

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Diane Quinn heads the strategy, planning, staffing, and finances.
Diane Quinn heads the strategy, planning, staffing, and finances.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The posters outside the small executive offices at Harvard's American Repertory Theater tout a string of its shows that have gone on to Broadway, from revivals of "Porgy and Bess" and "Pippin" to the recent debut of "Waitress."

The past several years have marked a revival for the Cambridge theater, which in 2008 was mired in financial and artistic distress. Since then, the ART has doubled its revenue as it launched 10 plays and musicals that ended up in New York, a record pace for the theater. The shows have won a bevy of Tony awards, notice that's led to regular sellouts of its 534-seat Loeb Drama Center.


Revenue has climbed to $17.5 million in the fiscal year ended June 2014, the latest publicly reported. That same season, for the first time in a decade, the nonprofit ART did not lose money, according to a Globe review of its tax filings.

The story of the ART's resurgence is as much about an overhaul of its governance and oversight as it is about the jolt from the more popular shows it's been producing since artistic director Diane Paulus arrived in 2008.

The theater, launched at Harvard in 1980 by Robert Brustein, the former head of the Yale Repertory Theatre, became known for his avant-garde vision. He stepped down in 2002, giving way to a rocky period under Robert Woodruff, with shows that challenged convention but left some audiences cold and seats empty.

By the mid-2000s, the financial picture was ugly. The theater was short on cash and not bringing in enough revenue to cover expenses. Officials repeatedly dipped into endowment funds that were meant for the long term,according to interviews and tax filings.

"Woe to the organization that uses its endowment as a bank account," said Paul Buttenwieser, a Boston arts philanthropist who served on the ART advisory board for many years and is now part of its reconstituted fiduciary board.


By July 2008, the ART had operating losses of $4.7 million over three years. The next year, it lost $6 million, as investments managed by the Harvard endowment went south. Net assets dropped 36 percent over the period, to $13 million.

"The ART was not going to be financially viable,'' said Steven Hyman, who at the time was Harvard provost and vice chairman of the theater.

Major changes had been taken. Woodruff was fired in 2007, and Harvard tapped a search committee and consultants to hire Paulus. In 2009, the advisory board was remade into a board of trustees with more authority and responsibility.

Robert Orchard, the executive director at the time, agreed to an early retirement in September 2009. Neither he nor Woodruff responded to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the financial books were still being untangled. A controller left in mid-2010, with no replacement, and had failed to prepare the fiscal 2009 taxes. The staff scrambled to pull them together months late, according to a note in the filing. The next year's tax document contains multiple corrections and adjustments.

Today, Harvard still controls the organization and provides millions in financial support, but the trustees as a group are responsible for its results, in addition to being committed to raising money for it. "There's a lot of energy and skill, and of course more financial capacity than there was back in the days before,'' Buttenwieser said.


Indeed, contributions and grants totaled $6.6 million in fiscal 2014, more than twice the level in 2009. "We are all fiduciaries at this point,'' he said. And balancing the budget is expected. "It's a matter of great importance and something we pay very close attention to."

So far, the stream of shows going on to Broadway or London has not produced windfalls in Harvard Square. Outside producers generally take the financial risk for big musicals, leaving theaters like the ART with just a small stake, negotiated show by show. It takes a smash hit like "Hamilton" for an originating theater (New York's off-Broadway Public Theater) to have any chance of meaningful profits, people in the business said.

But ART productions have helped burnish a reputation as a venue that can attract money and talent, and sell tickets.

The high-energy, acrobatic production of "Pippin" in 2013 won four Tonys, including best musical revival and best director. "Waitress," a story about a small-town pie maker in a bad marriage, with music and lyrics by pop artist Sara Bareilles, this year received four Tony nominations and has been bringing in more than $1 million a week at the box office on Broadway.

Paulus's critics have called her productions too commercial, a departure from the more esoteric fare for which her predecessors were known. Hyman, the former provost, said it was Paulus's view that "People shouldn't have to struggle to stay awake during theater," and, "It's all right to have fun."


Paulus, in an e-mail while traveling, said the stock market's crash the week she joined the ART pressed her to "figure out how to make a theater thrive both artistically and financially."

"With my first season, we saw audiences returning to the theater," she said, as well as a boost in support from the board and philanthropic donors.

Now, the bar is higher than ever. The organization is under pressure to keep building on Paulus's successes, said Diane Quinn, a former senior executive at Cirque du Soleil, who decamped from Montreal in December to become executive director of the ART.

"I want the work to get better,'' Quinn said. "What if the work doesn't stay good?" she asked, revealing a question that keeps her up at night. "Everybody expects a high level of production."

The ART production of “Pippin” in 2013 won four Tonys, including best musical revival and best director.
The ART production of “Pippin” in 2013 won four Tonys, including best musical revival and best director.AP/Associated Press

For Quinn, 54, the founding producer of Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company in the late 1990s, the ART appointment is a return to regional theater. She spent the past 11 years working with the Las Vegas-style spectacle that is Cirque — a global business that last year was sold to a private equity firm, TPG Capital, for $1.5 billion. "I really missed theater," Quinn said.

On the more intimate stages of ART and its sister venue, Club Oberon in Cambridge, she is in charge of strategy, planning, staffing, and finances. Earlier this month, she traveled to Edinburgh for a festival run of the ART's "Glass Menagerie," which won a Tony in 2013 and still features Cherry Jones in the lead role.


Melia Bensussen, chair of the theater program at Emerson College in Boston, credits the ART with helping raise Boston's profile as a theater town.

"Any theater in Boston becoming so nationally prominent and bringing in so many artists is just terrific for the city," she said. It's also good for l actors, stage managers, and students working in theater.

Both Quinn and Buttenwieser insist that Paulus and the ART are not selecting shows based on what they think will sell in New York. Not that they'd mind making money.

"You never know if something is going to catch the imagination of a producer,'' Quinn said. But virtually every show at the Loeb sells out these days, because audiences have come to expect good things to happen when they buy a ticket.

"They trust her choices, they trust the aesthetic,'' Quinn said of Paulus. "You can't put a dollar value on that."

Beth Healy can be reached at beth.healy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.