The career of David Gray has always straddled the line between finance and the arts, so much so that when he opened his own financial consulting company, he decided to call it “Finance Arts LLC.” But as of this month, Gray has planted his flag firmly in the “arts” camp by becoming executive director of the Pennsylvania Ballet and closing down his Nassau Street business.
“It became evident to me when I took the job that I was not going to be a financial planner,” he said. “I need to focus on doing this full time. I can’t have a client in crisis calling me on the day when I have a performance.”
Gray, who began his career as a press director for the New York City Ballet, has become a sought-after finance guru for arts-oriented nonprofits. A certified financial planner, he served as executive director of the American Repertory Ballet before beginning a career as a roving executive director, filling interim director spots at a series of organizations including the New Brunswick Cultural Center and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. Much of his clientele at Finance Arts was composed of artists and arts organizations. He also wrote several books, including “The Finance Arts Guide to Nonprofit Cash Flow.”
Gray grew up in Princeton. His mother taught nursing at Mercer County Community College and his father was a businessman who owned a small publishing firm called Visual Education Corporation. Gray majored in humanistic studies at Johns Hopkins. After graduation he moved to New York City. At age 29 Gray was bartending and writing plays for a living when he got an offer to work for the New York City Ballet.
Before moving to New York City, Gray’s only experience with dancing had been when a college girlfriend had dragged him to a few ballet performances. “I could tell you they were kind of cool, but I couldn’t tell you why,” he says. “When I saw Ly Sylphide, I probably fell asleep because I just didn’t get it.” But later, while working for Doubleday, he saw a performance of Stravinsky and the whole thing clicked. He found the combination of music and movement irresistible.
There was another factor that lured him to the ballet. As a single man, the thought of being surrounded by beautiful ballerinas at all times was appealing. Before long, he had married the NYC Ballet’s principal dancer, Kyra Nichols. The couple now lives in Princeton and has two children.
All the while, Gray maintained an interest in finance and enjoyed investing the money he and his wife had after they got married. After his stint at the ballet, Gray became a certified financial planner, but continued to deal with the arts. He discovered that his affinity for money was something that many of his colleagues in the arts did not share. “One of the things I found was the more I got into nonprofit management, people had challenges when you discussed finances,” he says. “To them it was an amorphous concept. When you started talking about it, their eyes would glaze over.”
Gray says he found that explaining financial concepts in layman’s terms helped. For example, he would describe the eye-glazing term “cash flow” by comparing it to household financial concepts. You know when you get your paycheck, and you know when the rent is due — that’s cash flow.
Gray became a specialist in solving nonprofits’ financial problems. “It started to become more clear that the skillsets were useful in both areas, finance and nonprofit management,” he says. “I also believe that the world is a simple place, and that there are only three options: earn more, spend less, or borrow. Nonprofit organizations have those same three options.”
In his new role at the Pennsylvania Ballet, Gray hopes to use the first option. Gray believes cutting back on programming is a mistake that can cause a “death spiral” by killing the enthusiasm of donors. “We have to build more excitement,” he says. He also plans to make modern use of customer data. For example, the average subscriber to the ballet is a 61-year-old woman with a graduate school education, and the average single ticket-buyer is the same, but 10 years younger. Gray says he kept that in mind when someone asked him his opinion on a poster for a new show. “Why do you care about a 55-year-old male?” he replied. “Go find people who look like our subscribers and find out what they think.”
Gray says he also plans to bring the Pennsylvania Ballet up to speed on efforts other companies have made to engage their customers, from holding pre-show talks to filming the dancers backstage to hanging out in the lobby at shows wearing a nametag. The first time he went out in the lobby with his nametag on, he was warned that customers might seek him out to complain about something or another. “If they need to complain, then I’d better hear it,” Gray said.
The Pennsylvania Ballet, 323 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107; 215-551-7000; www.paballet.org.