Tonight Joan H. Weill, who hung up her ballet shoes long ago, will be honored for her decade-long patronage of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
“Judith inspired me,” Weill said in a phone interview, referring to the company’s head, Judith Jamison. “When they asked me to join the board, one of the things I asked was do I get to meet Ms. Jamison? That was very important to me.”
The building that houses the Ailey company is named after Weill. Her love of the art form helped nudge her billionaire husband, Citigroup Inc. Chairman Emeritus Sanford “Sandy” Weill, to become a supporter. Over the years, the couple has donated between $30 million and $35 million to the nonprofit.
Weill said that while she’s aware her philanthropy has helped put the nonprofit on solid footing, it was the legendary choreographer Ailey who laid the foundation for its success. The organization, which has an annual operating budget of $29 million, is led by Executive Director Sharon Gersten Luckman.
Ailey, who died in 1989, created the dance group in 1958 to combine modern dance with ballet, jazz and African ethnic rhythms and concepts. Jamison, who joined the company in 1965, succeeded him as artistic director.
“It all started with Mr. Ailey, because he was really the visionary,” she said. “He started the arts and education programs and outreach programs before they had a name.”
At tonight’s event, the Ailey company will perform the premiere of “The Hunt,” a modern ballet for six men choreographed by artistic director designate Robert Battle, who will succeed Jamison in 2011. Also on the bill is a new production of Ailey’s “Cry,” and the 50-year-old classic “Revelations,” accompanied by the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Sandy Weill will serve as co-chairman, along with his daughter, Jessica Bibliowicz, chief executive of National Financial Partners Corp.; Simin and Herb Allison Jr., former U.S. assistant secretary of the Treasury; Kathryn and Kenneth Chenault, American Express Co.’s chief executive officer; and Bank of New York Mellon Corp. President Gerald L. Hassell and his wife, Agnes; and lawyer Samuel “Sandy” Lindenbaum and wife, Linda.
Weill said one of her proudest accomplishments is overseeing the fundraising and construction of the $54 million, 77,000-square-foot Joan Weill Center for Dance, the Ailey company’s home, which opened in 2005. The Weills gave Ailey $15 million toward the project.
“This building sort of grounded us,” said Weill, who studied dance and piano as a child growing up in New York and California. “Art museums have a home, and dance companies really didn’t until we built this building.”
Weill, a Brooklyn College graduate, met her husband on a blind date before he got his degree from Cornell University in 1955. When they married, they started out “with absolutely zero,” she said. Sandy Weill started work as a $35-a-week runner for Bear Stearns Co. in 1955 and went on to become co-chairman and CEO of Citigroup Inc. in 1998.
“We’re passionate about what we do,” she said about their philanthropy. “It’s not just about writing a check. It’s about really giving your time and yourself to the organization.”