In this photo: Michael Abbatiello and Bre Short. Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee.

"The Harkness Foundation for Dance announced on Sunday that it would distribute $5 million in grants over the next decade to five organizations that support dance. The recipients are the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Joyce Theater, City Center, the 92nd Street Y and the NYU Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases, which houses the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. Each organization will receive $1 million, making this the foundation’s largest grant to date. Plans for the funding include support for dance presentation at the academy; a new performance series at the Joyce; renovations at City Center; a new residency program at the 92Y; a new boardroom at the Hospital for Joint Diseases; and the development of online courses about dance injuries and treatment.”

-The New York Times, January 11, 2015

I came across this announcement while browsing Twitter one morning. When I read it, my heart collapsed in on itself, and the supernova-like energy from this collapse erupted out through my eyeballs in the most epic of eye-rolls, a display of exasperated annoyance the likes of which have never before been witnessed by mankind (mankind didn’t exactly witness this, because I was alone in my apartment, but in the interests of dramatic effect, let’s say they did).

This reaction was somewhat strange, because, for all intents and purposes, I should be happy about this kind of funding. The five granted organizations are not undeserving – each organization has a long standing relationship with the Harkness Foundation for Dance, and has a proven history of audience cultivation and successful programming, including education, presentation, and health services. Some of the programs that will receive funding are also quite innovative (with a nod to Joyce Unleashed and the Hospital for Joint Diseases’ online dance injury courses).  

These organizations are not inherently bad, nor is their programming. My annoyance is that Harkness granted all of the 5 million dollars allotted for all of New York Dance to those five organizations. That (not insignificant) amount of money is only given to a select few behemoth organizations that have dominated the field for years, and have a great amount of control over the kind of work that receives support and the services provided to the community. The presenters in particular also have a huge influence on what the majority of dance audiences see and in what context it is viewed. And in spite of all of the wonderful  intentions of the people running these organizations and the grant makers who support them, this kind of limited access to funding perpetuates a lot of problems affecting the industry today.

I personally feel that the following are the most insidious:

The rising costs of real estate in NYC make renting studio space more expensive for choreographers and class prices higher for performers. Creators and performers are unable to take the time to develop their craft and their individual voices. They also can’t afford to take care of their bodies and push their technique farther. Their work suffers as a result.  

Trying to keep up with rising costs and likely riddled with debt, artists are forced to take several jobs that barely pay them enough to live in New York. They are unable to put the same kind of attention, energy, and time into their craft. They are exhausted, and their work suffers as a result.

Access to technology is incredibly limited, and dance training programs haven’t taught artists enough about how technology can affect, improve, and/or promote their work.

On top of these challenges that are affecting the quality and visibility of our work, audiences are losing interest in dance. Other industries and communities in the arts that are able to support their artists, to distribute their work to a large number of people, and leverage technology to their advantage are better able to attract the attention and excitement of artsy audiences.

Because audiences are less invested, funding sources shift to reflect their best interests. The funding that still is available to dance is then allocated towards a select few organizations who have the infrastructure available to convince grant makers that they are reliable and stable.

Chicken: meet egg.  As a notoriously under-resourced field, we are constantly hearing that “there’s no money for dance.” But there  is money available for dance. It’s simply a question of who receives and benefits from that money. And while there may be a few exciting new initiatives supported by this grant, the construction of a boardroom and providing leadership support  is also a large part of where these funds are being allocated.

It would be absurd of me to assert that the Harkness funding is the seat of all of these issues. Harkness is giving a gift to a sector of the field that the foundation cares about. However, I am concerned that the current structure will only feed this same chicken/egg cycle that allows the field to fester in it’s own challenges rather than to rise above them.  

Consider for a moment that instead of giving million dollar grants to the above organizations, they gave, say, one hundred $50,000 grants, or a single million dollar grant and several other smaller grants, or any allocation of the grant amount that allows opportunities to a greater variety of companies, dance studios, and arts organizations – What might happen instead?

When I let conjecture lead to idealism, I see a world in which:

Artists and organizations would be supported with the resources to grow. They would have access to new technology, space, and time to develop. They could pay their collaborators fairly, who might be able to drop an exhausting side job. This would enable them to come to rehearsals energized and enthusiastic.  

Funds allocated to dance studios would allow studios to lower the price of class from $20 a pop to $12-$15 each. Dance makers and performers alike would be have greater access to different styles and ideas, they would be technically apt and in shape, and from their combined research and new energy, their work would improve exponentially.

Artists and organizations, with that kind of support, could rent and/or produce work in a number of interesting, vibrant spaces throughout the city, instead of relying on festivals to show short excerpts of work out of context or waiting for one of the few notable presenters to notice and/or want to present them.

Dance artists could engage collaborators in music, technology, visual art, architecture, film, and beyond – and pay their new collaborators adequately for their time, consultation, and contribution.  

Audiences, knowing they were going to see something supported, well-crafted, and interesting, that takes place in a unique, vibrant space, would be more willing to see dance shows. Audiences may begin to consider us a priority, and as such, funding priorities would shift. Most importantly, a vibrant and diverse community of dance makers, enthusiasts, and supporters would build around the art form.

It is perhaps premature of me to assume that none of this will result from the Harkness funding, and that it won’t positively affect the dance world. We have yet to see which artists will be chosen for the residency and presentation opportunities, the impact of renovated studios, the success of the online injury prevention courses, and more. However, by continuing to fund the same organizations, we exclude a great number of new, innovative, and highly deserving artists and organizations (Nowness, Gibney Dance Center, 4th Arts Block, and CRAWL** to name a few), that could benefit immensely from even a fraction of this grant amount.

This grant appears to be a safe gift to reliable, well-meaning organizations. But what we actually need right now is for grant makers to consider the dance world as a vibrant, exciting industry to invest in rather than a failing field that needs to be saved. This kind of growth is vital to the industry and to the kind of change that we need to inspire – not only to protect the performers and dance makers who bring the field to life, but to remain a solvent and relevant contemporary art form.

**Full disclosure: CRAWL is my own presenting series.

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