Nancy Walton Laurie: Ballet's Next Best Friend?

When an heiress is sitting on $3.4 billion — which is about the size of the Rockefeller Foundation's endowment — you have to wonder where all that money will some day end up. Nancy Walton Laurie, the daughter of Walmart co-founder James "Bud" Walton, hasn't said much publicly about her long-term philanthropic priorities. She and her husband Bill Laurie have made one large gift that we know of — a $25 million pledge to the University of Missouri for a new basketball arena — but nothing else at that level. (At least that has been revealed.)

Alas, Nancy Walton Laurie is better known for having a daughter, Paige, who paid another student to do her homework for four years at the University of Southern California. She's also well known for her luxury consumption. Laurie and her husband own a $17 million mansion in Nevada and, in 2007, bought a 61-meter yacht.

Laurie has apparently not been very actively involved with Walton Family Foundation, since she is not a board member (See IP's profile on director of special initiatives in arts, Naccaman Williams, to learn more about the foundation's arts giving). If Laurie is giving through the Walton Family Foundation, it's hard to identify which gifts are hers. All that said, we know at least one area where Nancy Walton Laurie has focused her giving and her passion: Ballet.

"I have always been an admirer of the arts, especially the grace and athleticism that a dancer possesses," Laurie said in a 2005 interview. Laurie's daughter Paige started taking dance lessons at three and in 1998 Laurie started the Columbia Performing Arts Center, a dance studio in Columbia, Missouri, for elementary through college age students,.

She became increasingly interested in dance and decided to do something bigger, founding Cedar Lake Dance, a contemporary ballet ensemble in New York in 2002. "I always would go to New York and see, you know, different companies dance," Laurie told the The New York Times. "It was just one of those things."

It's not clear how much money Nancy Walton Laurie has given Cedar Lake, or how ongoing her support is, but clearly she has spent heavily on this endeavor. A decade ago, Laurie bought two buildings for the Cedar Lake in Chelsea for $11.3 million and then millions more on renovations — creating a home that now includes a studio and a 200-seat performance space. Currently, Cedar Lake has 16 dancers and professional staff of 15.

The New York Times, writing about Cedar Lake in 2006, noted:

Some of the benefits of patronage are undeniable. The dancers have an almost unheard-of 52-week contract, with health insurance and vacation pay. The buildings contain a large, well-lighted rehearsal studio, dressing rooms and a dancers' lounge adjacent to the theater. A physical therapist is available to them, as are a resident video artist and an in-house wardrobe department.

Cedar Lake has been a dream for the lucky dancers who've been part of the company, and creating opportunity and security for them was a big part of Laurie's goal. "The reason I founded Cedar Lake is because of my love of dancers," she told the Times. "I'm committed to our dancers, their careers, their growth and their advancement. I'm passionate about this. That's what Cedar Lake is all about."

Laurie added: "I do not want my kids — I call them my kids, they aren't my kids — the dancers in my company to have four to six jobs per week to pay for living expenses in New York. Apparently, that's what a lot of dancers in New York do. I want them to come and focus on their careers."

If only more billionaires had this kind of empathy for struggling artists.

Nancy Walton Laurie's other big philanthropic cause has been nurturing leadership skills among young sorority women through Chi Omega, where she created the Nancy Walton Laurie Leadership Institute.

When the time comes for truly large-scale giving, though, it's hard to see how Chi Omega could absorb much of Laurie's fortune. The world of contemporary ballet, on the other hand, is desperate for resources. As the The New York Times commented, writing about Laurie support of Cedar Lake "A generous visionary patron with limitless funds is the dream of every performing arts organization."