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Meredith Max Hodges joined Boston Ballet as Executive Director in 2014, and leads the company in partnership with Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen. As an arts leader, Hodges has a passion for bringing a business approach to building audiences, broadening access, and supporting the creative process. Her wide range of experience combines both the not-for-profit arts and the for-profit management industries. Prior to joining Boston Ballet, Hodges served as Executive Director of Gallim Dance, a New York-based contemporary dance company that tours worldwide. At the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Hodges worked in a variety of roles, most recently as a Project Director leading strategic development, membership, and technology initiatives. She has also worked as a Senior Associate Consultant with Bain & Company in Boston and New York, consulting for clients in multiple industries, including private equity and consumer products. Hodges is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School. Hodges was elected to Harvard University’s Board of Overseers in 2018.
Lindsay Gearheart: Tell me about your background and how you arrived at Boston Ballet.
Max Hodges: I’ve been in the arts world for a while now, and I have a very specific approach or desire, which is to bring a data-driven mindset and business mindset to furthering our mission at Boston Ballet and more broadly in the arts world. I did start in the for-profit world. I got all of my education here in Boston – I went to college here, I worked at Bain & Company here in Boston, I got my MBA at Harvard Business School. My very first job in the arts was in the finance department of the Museum of Modern Art. I was testing this hypothesis that I wanted to use a particular skillset that I had in service of something that was really important to me, and MOMA was an amazing place. My hypothesis tested true, so to speak.
Since then, I have been working in the arts world with this thesis and this approach. I’ve been at Boston Ballet five and a half years now as Executive Director, which means that I lead the company in partnership with our incredible Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen. We are essentially co-CEOs, and Mikko looks after the artistry and vision of the company on stage and in the school, and I get to do everything else, which is a job description that I positively love.
LG: That brings up something I was interested in asking you about. What’s it like to share those leadership responsibilities? How do you work with each other on a shared vision?
MH: Yes, the co-CEO model is unusual EXCEPT in the performing arts world, where it’s absolutely the standard. It’s incredible to have a partner like Mikko. For us, this works really well, and I think it works well because Mikko and I have tremendous respect for what each of the other one does. Also, we’re both more interested in the work that we do. *laughs* So this isn’t a case of Mikko secretly wishing he had my job or me secretly wishing I had Mikko’s. We both really love our domains and supporting one another and supporting each other’s success because that all leads to holistically Boston Ballet’s success.
LG: How do you balance making art that fulfills Boston Ballet’s mission while also being profitable?
MH: I think there are very specific toolkits for managing a successful and sustainable nonprofit performing arts organization. I do think that a portfolio strategy in particular is critical to maximizing mission fulfillment but doing it in a financially responsible way. One of the things I like to talk about in my stump speech or my TEDx talk is this idea of an opportunity selection framework. The idea that for any organization — not just nonprofits and not just mission-driven organizations — but for any organization, you are in many ways the sum of all the projects you take on and all the work you do in a given year, and that making sure you select those projects very intentionally, very thoughtfully, and in particular, that you’re spending the right amount of time pursuing the projects that are going to be the most meaningful as opposed to just answering the phone and saying yes to whatever comes in is really critical.
There’s an interesting framework for this that was developed by a professor of mine from HBS named Alan Grossman, so I have to give Professor Grossman all the credit for the framework itself. But it is this main fundamental idea that your organization is a portfolio of projects and you really have to evaluate how each activity that you’re doing furthers the mission and what its financial impact is and find a good balance across all these metrics.
LG: How does Boston Ballet ensure a spirit of innovation while often producing classic works?
MH: Boston Ballet is probably most differentiated in the ballet world for our commitment to the full breadth of our art form. We celebrate classical ballets like the Nutcracker and Swan Lake, but we also have a very strong commitment to neoclassical works and to commissioning world premiers of contemporary works by some of the world’s leading choreographers. That commitment is very important to us, to Mikko, to our board, to all of us here at Boston Ballet. We want to be the ballet company of the future. We want to be a player in what moves the art form forward. And that absolutely requires the commissioning of new works by new artistic voices.
We have an incredible partnership with Bill Forsythe right now. He’s an incredible voice in contemporary choreography, and he made a brand new work for us last year called Playlist (EP). It was the first work he’s made for a North American company in something like 30 years. It was just tremendous to have it here, and our audiences had a huge reaction. This was on the heels of a very fabulous exhibition at the ICA last winter called Choreographic Objects. These were kinetic sculptures and interactive objects that are part of Bill’s incredible artistic mind. With our partnership, we were able to present this world premier on our stage and it was fabulous. We broke every audience record that we’ve ever had for contemporary programming here at Boston Ballet. There was just tremendous interest in this new work.
So the big answer to your question is: We are very committed to the full breadth of repertoire, and we want there to be big open doors, open windows, for people to come in and discover Boston Ballet wherever they’re most interested, whether that means starting with something like The Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty with a recognizable narrative or whether it means coming to us for the first time to see something a little more off-the-wall and contemporary and groundbreaking. Twenty-eight percent of our audience for the Forsythe world premiere was new to Boston Ballet, so we’re definitely seeing people come in through different doors.
LG: Can you talk about the ChoreograpHER Initiative, and Boston Ballet’s commitment to presenting works by female choreographers on the main stage? What’s planned for the 2020-2021 season?
MH: We launched the ChoreograpHER Initiative just about one year ago in response to a pretty dramatic gender inequity in the ballet world, which is that while there are a lot of women in ballet (ballet dancers, women in leadership, women in the boardroom), there is a huge disparity in choreographers for ballet. Something like nine out of every 10 major ballets produced worldwide are by male choreographers. We wanted to participate in changing that in a big way, and what we developed was a multi-year and multi-faceted initiative called the ChoreograpHER Initiative.
It’s got a few pillars that are important to us. The first is in the school. We’ve begun choreographic workshops for young women in the school to start to exercise this muscle early and empower young women in the school to envision themselves at the front of the studio, not just in the middle of the pack.
There’s also a pillar in our professional company, where we’ve been giving increasing opportunities for women in the company to choreograph on their peers. Boston Ballet has about 65 professional dancers from something like 20 nations across the world. It’s an incredible diverse and international group, and it’s slightly more than half women. Mikko’s very interested in developing the choreographic talent among our dancers. We believe in these artists — they’re so extraordinary! There’s no limit to what they can do. Giving them the opportunity to develop a choreographic voice is just a great source of emerging artists within our own company. Historically, when we’d opened up opportunities, it tended to be six or seven men would raise their hands to every one woman. We wanted that dynamic to change, and we’ve invited many more women into that process.
This October, for the second time in a row, we showcased six world premieres by six women in our company in our studio here in our South End headquarters. It was just a tremendous celebration of the talent and artistry of our own company. It becomes a launching point for many of these six women. They were choreographing for the very first time, but as they build their experience, the size of the stage increases, so to speak.
The third pillar is the commitment to presenting more women choreographers on our main stage at the Citizens Bank Opera House. This season, coming up in our Carmen program, which is March 12 – 22, we’re featuring two works by an incredible choreographer named Helen Pickett. Helen actually was a dancer for Bill Forsythe many years ago, so there’s a Forsythe connection here too, and Helen’s first choreographic opportunity was here at Boston Ballet. Mikko commissioned her to make a short work a number of years ago, and since then she’s gone on to create more than 40 ballets in the U.S. and Europe. We’re so proud of our small part in Helen’s story. She’s a tremendously talented choreographer.
We’re presenting two of her works in the Carmen program; they’re called Tsukiyo and Petal. We’re thrilled to have Helen back in the studio, the dancers are thrilled to have her here, and we’re incorporating Helen in these other pillars of the ChoregrapHER Initiative, where she’s providing mentorship and support to the young women in the school and the professional dancers in our company as they embark on choreographing for the first time. It creates this virtuous cycle of artists supporting artists, and us being so very pleased to be presenting Helen’s work again.
Helen’s just an inspiring person, and to think about her trajectory. It starts with making that very first piece. Art-making is so risky, and it’s resource-intensive. There’s inherent risk to making new art, but it’s critical and necessary, and in certain cases, art-making is life-changing and world-changing, so we need a diverse set of voices embarking on this.
LG: In a profile from your time at HBS a number of years ago, you said “Access to the arts is a human right and a necessity to global citizenship.” I loved that quote, and was wondering if you could explain it a little?
MH: They asked students to respond to an extraordinary poem by Mary Oliver, and the quote from the poem is, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It’s such a great question to ask people at the precipice of building their career. And for me, the answer to that has always included my career. I’ve tried to point myself in a direction where my daily work is something that’s very meaningful to me. So that’s part one: My answer to that question really involves where I want to spend my energies on a day-to-day basis.
And absolutely, I think art is a critical part of our national and global dialogue. I think empathy and inspiration and understanding are conveyed by art maybe more effectively than any other vehicle. And I’m certainly including the performing arts and visual arts and literature here. I do believe that access to the arts should be fundamental in our nation and the world to create a greater understanding of the human project, so to speak.
LG: A final question: You mentioned that you spent time in New York working for MOMA. Now that you’ve spent the rest of your career in Boston, what do you think is unique about the arts community here?
MH: We have so much to be proud of in our artistic community and our arts sector here in Boston. I would say Boston punches above its weight in terms of the number of truly world-class arts organizations here in town. One of the ways that I measure that is the global touring that our arts organizations do. We toured to Paris last spring, the BSO always is touring, so it’s amazing to have Boston represented globally by these arts organizations. It really brings Boston’s name to the world, and I think that’s an exciting thing.
I just love some of our colleagues and peers in the arts world here, particularly on this theme of ambitious and sometimes experimental artmaking. Our friends over at the ART are always up to something interesting, and I mentioned the ICA earlier as a tremendous partner, thinking creatively and bringing the visual and kinetic work of a choreographer to broad audiences. I think it’s so exciting when we can authentically partner like this and expand people’s vision.
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