Sarah Butler

To help remove boundaries that prevent aspiring dancers from continuing their training, patrons of UT’s Sarah & Ernest Butler School of Music donated $250,000 to Ballet Austin’s Trainee Program.

Ballet Austin announced the donation from Dr. Ernest and Sarah Butler on Wednesday. Sarah Butler is the chairwoman of the Ballet Austin Foundation, created in 1998 to benefit Ballet Austin. The Butlers donated $55 million to the music school in 2008.

“I am grateful for this wonderful donation and for the Butlers’ ongoing generosity. This gift helps remove barriers that could potentially deny some exceptional young people the chance to continue their training,” Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills said in a press release. “The Butlers understand the importance of the opportunity for focused and intensive study in order for a young dancer to be ready to enter a highly competitive artistic discipline.”

Ballet Austin named its downtown headquarters the Butler Dance Education Center after the Butlers when they donated $3.5 million to the organization.

With more than 800 students enrolled, Ballet Austin is one of the nation’s largest classical ballet academies. The Academy is split into five areas of study and the Trainee Program is the most senior level of the Academy. The intensive professional-track program allows students to practice up to 17 hours per week.

The program offers trainees instruction in classical ballet and more contemporary forms of dance. Ballet Austin selects trainees through a nationwide audition and the trainees have the opportunity to rehearse and perform with Ballet Austin in selected performances. Although most of the training occurs in the studio, the program provides opportunities for trainees to attend educational workshops, lectures and meetings with dance professionals from related industries.

Tuition for one trainee for 35 weeks is $5,500. Thirty percent of Ballet Austin’s main company roster graduated from the Trainee Program, according to Ballet Austin’s website.

UT’s Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music was renamed in honor of the Butlers following their donation, the largest single gift to a music school at a public university, according to an article in the Austin Business Journal.

Psychology sophomore Mike Leberknight, who takes classes in the Butler School of Music, said the building is well equipped with instruments and spaces for students to practice music.

“The school is great. There are two floors full of music practice rooms and most include pianos. It is one of my favorite places on campus because of its modern architecture,” Leberknight said. “I am happy to see the Butlers continue to donate to the Austin community.” 

Printed on Tuesday, October 23, 2012 as: Butlers give $250,000 to Ballet Austin program

Last Wednesday, The Texan broke the story that UT officials had politely turned down Sarah and Ernest Butler’s immediate $33 million donation to the music school because the couple made it contingent on UT creating a stand-alone music college, a conservatory-like college within the university but apart from the rest of the fine arts programs, which the administration does not want to do. Currently, the Butler School of Music is part of the College of Fine Arts. The offer rejected, the Butlers’ donation will continue to be paid throughout the couple’s lives, and UT will lose the interest that could have accrued on the donation had UT accepted the money  in one lump sum.

As justification for rejecting the money, Douglas Dempster, Dean of the College of Fine Arts released a statement explaining that separating the music school from the other fine and performing arts programs would incur administrative costs and diminish the advantages music students gain from music programs currently “woven into the curricular fabric of the fine arts.” He lists as benefits  of maintaining that fabric, “collaborations  in dance and music composition, teacher training in the fins and performing arts, digital arts and media, parts administration and commercial arts, opera, musical theatre and emerging fields in the performing arts and entertainment. These collaborations call for more closely integrated interdisciplinary interactions rather than narrowly isolated disciplinary silos,” Dempster said.

The argument made in favor of creating a music college by Butler alumni, students and staff (few of whom were willing to speak on the record for this article): The most prestigious, competitive programs, like those at Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and The University of North Texas College of Music, are standalone. Technically speaking, a UT switch to a stand-alone, conservatory-like program would mean simply a change in the nature of the reporting relationship between the music school administration and UT. But because  the value of musical higher education rests so heavily on reputation, the argument for heeding to the Butler’s wish has merit.

The most persuasive reason for UT to create a standalone music college, however, is because Texas produces many of the best high school music graduates in the country, and given the opportunity to stretch its arms, the school could gain, by virtue of its geographic position, flagship school status. Few will argue with the contention that Texas music students are among the strongest. Texas Music Educators Association Robert Floyd said Texas bands, choirs and orchestras travel all over the country in spring to compete in national festivals in other states, and more often than not, a Texas ensemble is declared the winner. Around 1920, music became a part of Texas public education and a culture of excellence  emerged that has only been strengthened and maintained since. Texas students routinely attend top music camps in the country for free. By turning down the Butlers’ offer, and those of previous standalone music school advocates, UT is denying itself Texas  high school graduates, many already accomplished musicians, an opportunity to attend a public, Texan conservatory worthy of their talents.