“My three operative words are access, relevance and sustainability. And if we are not relevant and successful, we are not going to be sustainable.​”

Finding Success by Democratizing Leadership

“My three operative words are access, relevance and sustainability. And if we are not relevant and successful, we are not going to be sustainable.​” —Greg Cameron

For people who don’t know about fine arts (such as art museums, ballet, theater) there’s a sense that these institutions exist without a risk of turning off the lights. Some are unaware of the fact that donors are constantly giving to make these institutions possible. Talent will flock to the stage or the gallery with their best, most affecting work. The public will happily consume the art and leave feeling unconcerned about the relative security of the organization. The relationship of the audience to the art can come across as a one-way street: art will always be there for us to take it in, and all we need to do is buy a ticket.

In reality, the nature of art is anything but simple: it takes constant and dedicated effort at all levels to keep donors invested, audiences satisfied, and organizations humming. The Joffrey Ballet, a dance company dating back to 1956, has come to rely on the wits and clarifying leadership of Greg Cameron. As the Joffrey’s President and Chief Executive Officer—a position he was elevated to in July after serving as Executive Director since 2013—Cameron came to the company with three decades of experience in arts administration, having spent nearly 20 years at the Museum for Contemporary Art, five years at the Art Institute, and five years at WTTW.

Cameron has always held a passion for art. He doesn’t categorize himself as an artist, but as a dot connector: “As a little kid I loved doing those connect-the-dots drawings,” he says. “You would have 40 dots on a page and suddenly, ‘Oh there is a bird!’ I ​think my job is to be a dot connector. ​And that’s what I do every day.”

Cameron advocates building a strong organizational culture, founded on trust and respect. His leadership style is to lead by example, recalling his promise to employees when he first started at the Joffrey that “I will do anything that I ask you to do.”

Cameron firmly believes in democratizing art so that hardly any hurdles exist between the public and the painting, stage or performers. He acknowledges the work everyone at the Joffrey does to make the company an international leader in the arts—specifically ballet. With the belief that ballet is for everyone, the Joffrey spares no effort to be as inclusive as possible and thinks about diversity in the broader sense: race, gender, sexuality and physical access. “We now have large-print programs at the Auditorium Theatre and have [ASL] signing at every program that we do where there is spoken language,” Cameron says. “We did a sensory-sensitive performance here for parents with kids with autism.” 

To Cameron, success is more than merely a ticket sale; success for the Joffrey is about positioning the dance company to achieve long-term viability. One of the ways Cameron does this is with compelling community outreach efforts that capture the imagination of the next generation of performers and theatergoers. The Joffrey has a presence in 50 Chicago Public Schools, where they run dance classes that last for 30 weeks. Classes cover everything from hip hop and ballet to tap and modern dance. “We know that we are actually saving lives. . . . It’s getting kids up and active. It’s helping them think about how to create through movement. . . and promotes social and emotional development,” Cameron says.

The Joffrey’s community outreach efforts also highlight a vital component of Cameron’s leadership style: empowering others to lead alongside him. Understanding that dancers have fairly short careers and face challenges finding gainful employment after leaving the stage, Cameron encourages performers to think about life after their performing days are over. In some cases, he acts as a dot connector and places them in roles where they naturally excel. Take Erica Edwards, for example: a retired ballerina who started dancing at age four after seeing her cousin bring diversity to the ballet stage. Spotlighted by the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001 as a “Black History Maker,” she now heads up the Joffrey’s community outreach program. 

Edwards, along with others in the program, are powerful role models who exemplify Cameron’s thoughtful, inclusive stewardship of the Joffrey to attain sustainable growth. To achieve greater diversity in ballet, Cameron believes it’s important for the younger generation to see dancers with similar backgrounds and ethnicities to spark their interest and let them know that this is something that they could be involved in. As Cameron puts it, “This is part of good, long-term audience development. Not everybody is going to be a ballet dancer, but we need audiences. We need smart and engaged people.”

Finding new, untested ways for the Joffrey to remain relevant means taking a few risks. One that Cameron found imperative was to signal to the public that the Joffrey was as strong as ever. Together with The Mary B. Galvin Artistic Director, Ashley Wheater, Cameron and the Joffrey team threw themselves into putting on an updated production of The Nutcracker, where no detail was left untouched. Some of the production’s key updates included bringing in Christopher Wheeldon, a brilliant, Tony Award-winning choreographer, as well as the creation of new costumes and fantastic new sets. Simply putting on a modernized production of a beloved ballet staple wasn’t enough: Cameron raised funds to document the entire process of bringing the Joffrey’s The Nutcracker to life and released the documentary for free as a tool to generate inspiration and awareness. The Nutcracker opened to rave reviews, and the Joffrey found phenomenal success.

Sustainability is clearly the end goal for Cameron and the Joffrey. He diligently works to ensure the future of the dance company long after his tenure ends. By bringing the Joffrey to audiences who otherwise wouldn’t experience it, and building pathways for new generations of dancers, Cameron ensures that there will be a positive rate of change in terms of audience growth, artist development, and organizational health.

Photo By Cheryl Mann

Fast Facts

Location Chicago, IL
Number of Employees 204, including full- & part-time employees, seasonal employees, and stage hands
Time in Current Role 5 years
Previous Experience Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs The Art Institute of Chicago The Museum of Contemporary Art WTTW/WFMT
Leader He Most Admires The leader that I most admire is my Grandmother Speer (Barbara Naomi Speer). A lifelong resident of Coleta, Illinois (population less than 200), she led by example. As a 4-H volunteer, I observed her create a fun learning environment—an environment infused with trust, respect, and the power of being a good listener. She embodied Winston Churchill’s adage, “You make a living by what you get—you make a life by what you give.”
5 Things He Can’t Live Without • My partner, family, and friends! • My trusted colleagues in the social impact sector • Artists and Chicago’s vibrant cultural community • Reading—from the daily news to Tolstoy • Time to just think

Interviewed by Emma Gresser and Tony Milazzo.