BECKET, MASS. — A scant two years ago, Jacob's Pillow, the country's oldest dance festival, was on the brink of financial ruin. A massive renovation and expansion project based in part on anticipated government funding left the Massachusetts festival with a $5 million debt just as the political climate was leaving the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) depleted and nearly powerless.
There was much speculation that the prestigious festival was headed for bankruptcy. Then it recruited Sali Ann Kriegsman, who left after 10 years as director of the dance program at the NEA to become the Pillow's new executive director. Ms. Kriegsman not only raised enough money to erase the debt, but she also made great strides toward setting the festival up for a more stable financial and artistic future, with a new five-year plan to strengthen and interrelate the Pillow's elements of presentation, creative development, education, and preservation.
Now, however, in the midst of the festival's 65th season, Kriegsman has announced she will resign Oct. 31, a move that comes as a surprise and shock to Pillow insiders as well as the dance world at large.
"The things I came here to achieve have been accomplished," Kriegsman explained. "I was invited to Jacob's Pillow to help lead this great institution out of a dire financial predicament and set a course for the future by strengthening its programs and institutional capacity. The board, staff, and I have been able to accomplish this in a shorter time than we could have imagined. Now it is time for me to return home and devote myself to independent projects."
Kriegsman's move from the NEA to Jacob's Pillow, one she calls "out of the frying pan into the fire," was made largely due to her profound belief in an organization whose demise would have had a disastrous impact on the American dance world. That altruism came at a personal cost, however, resulting in a commuter marriage - her husband, Alan M. Kriegsman, Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic emeritus of The Washington Post, still lives in Washington - and no time to regroup. "I need to take a deep breath," she says, "though I've loved it here, and it's very hard to leave."
Kriegsman's legacy also includes a highly successful initiative to make dance more accessible, through a variety of free informative lectures, performances, pre- and post-performance talks, videos, discussions, and program notes.
A succession committee has been formed to search for Kriegsman's replacement, and board chairman Neil Chrisman says they hope to have someone named by fall. Those in the field, however, believe Kriegsman will be very difficult to replace.
"The job needs somebody who understands that every artistic decision is a business decision, which Sali Ann did extraordinarily well," says Charles Reinhart, head of the American Dance Festival. "And her style is as good as you can get. She gets along with people beautifully and she has the passion."